Welcome to The Doc Option, a column in which we recommend a nonfiction film alternative to a major fiction release. This entry makes the case for the Zeitgeist documentary trilogy being a compliment to the Marvel movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Disclaimer 1: Yes, I am serious.
Disclaimer 2: This article spoils a major chunk of Captain America: The Winter Soldier
There have been conspiracy theorists as long as there has been an America — and long before that, to boot. In his book Idiot America, Charles Pierce theorizes that cranks are a deeply ingrained, even vital part of our national character. But the age of mass communication has warped nuttiness into a form like nothing we’ve seen before. Now the cranks can easily find each other. They can build communities. Like the Zeitgeist Movement.
An advocate of transitioning to a “resource-based economy” that rejects all currency in favor of a utopian social model, the group was founded by Peter Joseph, the writer, director, producer, editor, and scorer of the three films of the Zeitgeist series. Made between 2007 and 2011, these “documentaries” are Joseph’s one-man exposé of the various and sundry giant conspiracies that run the cogs of our civilization.
Zeitgeist: The Movie tackles the “real” origins of Christianity, the “truth” about 9/11, and how the Federal Reserve controls America. Zeitgeist: Addendum features an explanation of money creation, a lengthy interview with Confessions of an Economic Hitman author John Perkins, an introduction to the Venus Project, and a call for a boycott of the banking system. Zeitgeist: Moving Forward dives into discussions of human nature and social pathology, reiterates the need for a “resource-based economy,” and imagines a scenario in which people throw off the yokes of the banks.
These movies are shoddily made, their dire production values processed through the hands of a man with very little idea of what he is doing. They are the rantings of sheer paranoia, steeped in a science fan mindset (not a scientific mindset, but one that fetishizes the supposed superiority of pure reason over all other thought) and tinged with anti-Semitism. By very few metrics of evaluation could any of these “documentaries” (you must always put that term in quotes in reference to these films) good. But they are also absolutely riveting in the same way that Room 237 and Collapse are. They are unfiltered looks at madness and delusion, both sad and fascinating.
So what, pray tell, do these movies have to do with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the latest Marvel superhero jaunt? Well, it also features a conspiracy as a major facet of its plot. It turns out that S.H.I.E.L.D., the government agency that monitors the various superheroes in this film universe, has been infiltrated by the villainous group HYDRA. And it’s no small infiltration, either. At least a few hundred employees are double agents. That’s beside the who knows how many US senators are also in on it. Heck, Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce — a member of the World Security Council and S.H.I.E.L.D. head honcho Nick Fury’s superior — is the leader. And they have a plan to kill 20 million people whom they view as threats, all for the sake of creating a “perfectly ordered” world.
That’s the kind of evil plan that would make Peter Joseph wet himself. The thing is that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not alone in this kind of twist. One doesn’t even have to go outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe to find another example — in Iron Man 3, the Vice President is an ally of the bad guys. At the rate they’re going, every authority figure in the world will turn out to have been a villain all along. And it’s part of a trend that’s hot in pop culture right now. Last year’s Star Trek Into Darkness revolved around a military cover-up that had many parallels to 9/11 trutherism. The TV series Scandal incorporated some election-rigging shenanigans as a story arc. During the Daniel Craig era, the James Bond franchise has featured the nebulous, sinister organization Quantum as a string-puller behind multiple government and criminal enterprises. And that’s before getting to video games like the Metal Gear series. Everywhere you look, there are men behind curtains.
Real life conspiracies like Watergate have deadened public trust in our institutions. It’s worsened in recent years, as it’s a matter of public knowledge that the government is intruding into our personal lives and monitoring our communication at every turn. It’s natural that the stories we tell would reflect this feeling. With all the real-life secrecy, it’s sadly understandable that some people would take things a step further and believe that things are even more rigidly controlled than we know.
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the mechanism of HYDRA’s planned mass murder is a trio of flying warships that scan the worldwide data network for information, then use it to precisely target individuals anywhere on Earth. It’s the concerns of NSA data mining and drone warfare merged into one, an Orwellian nightmare. It’s the result of a plan that’s been in action for decades, during which HYDRA instigated various military clashes in order to spread fear among the populace. False flags and long-term plans are hallmarks of conspiracy theorist thinking. Zeitgeist showcases that thinking in action.
I should clarify that I am not suggesting that anyone watch all of the Zeitgeist films, either before or after Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In fact, I wouldn’t push a viewer to finish even one of the films if they do not wish to, given that moral repulsion is a fully valid response to them. But there will be people who watch this superhero movie and believe that the metaphorical conspiracy is actually an analog to an even bigger real-life conspiracy. And if you are at all interested in understanding (or glimpsing, at least) their mindset, then there’s no better way to do so than the Zeitgeist trilogy.