Spoilers throughout for Captain America: Civil War
I read in an interview for Captain America: The Winter Soldier that actor Sebastian Stan had based his performance as the Winter Soldier/Steve Rogers’s best friend in part from his observations of his step-father battle with Alzheimer’s. As someone whose job it is to care for people suffering from a variety of conditions, including Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia…I can tell you, it really shows. This is probably why that character has resonated so strongly with me: I never was a Marvel fan or even a Captain America fan until I saw The Winter Soldier. Then I saw Captain America: Civil War and realized that this movie continued all the threads that had so completely pulled me into its predecessor…including everything that made Bucky Barnes so achingly familiar.
Perhaps the saddest moment for me in this surprisingly sad movie was when the bad guy was triggering Bucky’s programming…all while Bucky was trying desperately to get away from him, before Zemo could finish saying the words that would remove what little scraps of humanity Bucky had regained for himself. The look on his face, that raw desperation and frenzied panic: I’ve seen that look before. I’ve seen it many times. It has been my painful privilege to be witness to the moment when the switch flips between lucidity and confusion and I’ve seen that look of panicked desperation to hold onto themselves on the faces of my residents. And I’ve seen the look of profound guilt and powerlessness when they come back to themselves and count up the damage done.
One resident didn’t recognize me when I came in to check on her and scratched my face and my arms, yelling that she was going to kill me. I left the room and when I went back an hour later to check on her again, she was crying. You see, when her memory of who I was came back, the memory of what she had done to me didn’t leave. She was crying, begging me to forgive her and wanting to know if I still loved her.
I told her of course. I told her that what happened wasn’t her fault, that she hadn’t chosen this disease, that she hadn’t chosen to forget who I was. She hadn’t chosen to cause pain to the people around her. It wasn’t her fault.
“No,” she replied. “I didn’t chose this. But I did this,” she added, resting her hand on the scratch marks her fingers had left on my arm only an hour before. That is almost word-for-word the exact same conversation as in a scene between Bucky and Steve in Captain America: Civil War.
It hit me like a load of bricks, because like me, Steve had no answer for that. There’s nothing you can say, really. You can’t deny them their pain anymore than you can deny them their humanity. You can’t affirm their agency and deny them the validity of the experience of losing their minds. Alzheimer’s and other traumas shatter people, their lives, their sense of identity. As a caregiver, or really just as someone who cares about them, you don’t want to diminish their sense of personhood even more.
And that was the second saddest part of this movie: watching Bucky in Romania, trying to gather to himself some scraps of his shattered humanity. Buying plums (which, incidentally, help to improve memory) and trying so hard to find again what it means to be a person instead of a weapon that happens to breathe. Particularly potent is the behind-the-scenes reveal by Stan that Bucky’s backpack, the only thing he takes with him when he runs, contains notebooks in which he has recorded every scrap of his life that he can remember, good and bad, things he’s done both of his own free will and at the control of others. Watching all that effort be disregarded by so many, unaknowledged and unappreciated; watching so many of the numerous characters be unable or unwilling to see the other, silent victim in the Winter Soldier’s crimes: Bucky Barnes himself. Watching, knowing that whatever peace he’s managed to find on his own is about to shattered.
If Bucky’s character arc in Captain America: The Winter Soldier was about the difficulty of free will over unquestioning obedience, as I suggested in my previous post on these movies, Captain America: Civil War is about the difficulty of choices and what it means to hold on to your humanity. Free will might start with a single choice, like, say, pulling a man who claims to be your old friend out of a river, but it is a choice that has to be made every single day for the rest of your life. To do the right thing, no matter how much pain it brings you. I don’t think Bucky’s courage in going back to Siberia, a place where his humanity was systematically stripped away, is acknowledged as much as it deserves.
Talk about following your friend into the jaws of death.
My residents may not march into battle, or fight Iron Man to defend their friends, but I see the same courage in their everyday lives. They live everyday in fear and dread of losing more of themselves to the disease…and yet they still struggle to live their lives. They grow attached to me, knowing they might forget me at any moment; they still struggle to be good people, even when they can’t remember the person they were before. They struggle to hold on to their shattered humanity, while so often their struggle and humanity are both ignored. We may not put them in cryostatis, like the Winter Soldier, but we do frequently shove them in a corner, forgotten. We forget to speak to them directly, to treat them like people instead of broken objects.
Broken people are people still and even the ravaged scraps of humanity are worth protecting.