Genevieve Spoils Everything: Steve Rogers' known unknowns

By Genevieve Valentine
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 2, 2014

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Get a grip: Scarlett Johansson (left) as Natasha Romanoff and Chris Evans as Steve Rogers are shown in a scene from "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."

Genevieve Spoils Everything is a new column in which PW’s film critic will take a thoroughly spoilered look at some of this week’s new releases—and sometimes even explore older ones. ‘Cause there are more of those than the new kind.

“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns–there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

It’s one of the most famous quotes by professional evader Donald Rumsfeld, interviewed this week in a documentary named after the fourth quadrant of that concept, “unknown knowns,” or “things you think you know that it turns out you did not.” And one of the most interesting takeaways of The Unknown Known is just how fully Rumsfeld embodies the logical emptiness of the phrase. Often vanishing before trouble, always cannily unable to comprehend his hypocrisies, the former defense secretary starts the documentary a slick politico and ends it a supervillain whose power is the ability to sidestep consequences, no matter how many direct hits he receives.

Watching The Unknown Known in quick succession after Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a sobering experience, particularly if you were dissatisfied (as I was) with some of the action-movie underpinnings of a movie that desperately wanted to gnaw on some moral-dilemma spycraft instead. Captain America, of course, remains Brooklyn kid Steve Rogers, the platonic ideal of goodness—his revulsion over domestic armed-drone surveillance is a direct rebuke of several American policies at home and abroad. But the string of firefights which demand his attention at regular intervals quickly work to distract from his initial dilemma: that all his good intentions are essentially hopeless against a worldwide war machine. In skimming so close to the real world, however briefly, Steve becomes a known unknown that trades on dramatic irony: We’re familiar with America’s seemingly-insurmountable betrayals of its idealistic promises to a depth Steve doesn’t even know he doesn’t know.

And Rumsfeld’s nearly 50-year history of White House influence finds another slow-boil parallel of influence in The Winter Soldier, given Marvel’s take on America’s postwar policy of hiring German scientists (many of whom received brand-new identities to be able to circumvent the no-Nazi-affiliation edict, another in a long history of bureaucratic compromises). That HYDRA’s been quietly breeding loyalists within the government that welcomed them is a reminder that evil only changes form, not nature—a well-framed way to make Steve face old foes. But though that’s enough to shock a man whose last war offered a clear-cut case of Bad Guy, Steve doesn’t suffer any real internal conflict after the first flush of anger. His friends are unequivocally on his side—even the notoriously-pragmatic Natasha never makes any pointed commentary—and enemies repeatedly attack in staccato-shot frenzies, removing any question about the necessity of action. The film glosses over some big questions: Is SHIELD’s desire to be in uncontested control, at heart, ideologically any different from HYDRA’s?

The potential of Steve coming up against evil and losing—to public apathy, entrenched beliefs, internal inertia—is deeply resonant, and from the film’s quieter moments, it feels as though making him face that prospect was in an early, darker draft. But the aspects that might sting him most—a PR campaign branding him an enemy of the people, having his colleagues take the side of the administration—aren’t the kind of problem the Marvel movies want their heroes facing (at least until they introduce the “Civil War” storyline from the comics, for which I hold out hope The Winter Soldier is a prelude). SHIELD has its own franchise to look out for and a pile of C-list heroes to bring down rogue evildoers. So eventually, Steve’s enemy defaults to the simplest aspect of his origin. For a man whose purpose is to determine the nature of goodness, the other guy’s still just Nazis, waiting to be taken out.

Near the end of The Winter Soldier, Falcon asks, “How do we know the good guys from the bad guys?” Steve’s answer: “If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad.” It’s true—a known known. And that’s too bad.

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