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Citizenfour

by Kilian Melloy
Saturday Feb 21, 2015
Edward Snowden in 'Citizenfour'
Edward Snowden in 'Citizenfour'  (Source:RADIUS-TWC)

In a text prologue to her new movie "Citizenfour," documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras refers to harassment she's endured since making the first two films in the trilogy that "Citizenfour" completes.

No, we're not talking about "Flag Wars," the 2003 film that took look at the dynamic shifts unleashed by white gays entering and gentrifying black neighborhoods. Poitras says she was place on a watch list after making "My Country, My Country," a documentary made for the television program "P.O.V." about the elections in Iraq in 2005. That's evidently all it took: For a filmmaker to witness, observe, and record the electoral process in a subjugated nation not yet ready for the democratic process.

"Citizenfour" more than doubles down on Poitras' earlier films, which have never flinched from dangerous, dismaying subjects and failed (or failing) states afflicted by, or propped up by, thug rule. But in this case, as Poitras secretly records conversations between whistleblower and NSA insider Edward Snowden and journalists Glenn Greenwald (an American who wrote, at the time, for UK newspaper The Guardian) and Ewen MacAskill (a British journalist).

The filming takes place after months of surreptitious, encrypted email exchanges; all parties have had to travel to Hong Kong, which doesn't place them out of the long arm of the NSA but which does offer them some breathing room. The plan: To document Snowden on the eve of his revelations -- and then see what happens once the shocking story he has to tell goes public.

It's a shameful spectacle. Obama bashers, so full of bile and imbecilic rhetoric centered around paranoid fantasies about impending "martial law" and schemes hatched with China, should be the first to sit up and take notice of the way in which the Obama Administration went after Snowden with a vintage (we're talking World War I) law that provides unreasonable punitive authority and, in any case, is misapplied to the Snowden case.

In any event, what, exactly, is the high crime in question? Snowden, who worked with the NSA on technology capable of monitoring, tracking, recording and extracting data from virtually all domestic telecommunication in the United States, exposed the existence of the infrastructure that makes perpetual, blanket surveillance possible. He also provided details about how the major telecommunications companies and online services acted in collusion with governmental agencies to perpetrate what is, essentially, a criminal enterprise directed against ordinary Americans.

In other words, Snowden revealed something unsavory, dangerous, and unethical that our own government has been doing. Reflexively, our government sought to take him down, discredit him, and then smooth it all over. Obama himself, usually so reasonable sounding, gives off an aura of red-handed paw-in-cookie-jar culpability when responding in archival footage to a reporter's question as to whether Snowden might, in fact, have acted in the country's best interests. The debacle, which hit the news like a tsunami in June 2013, was nothing less than a red-letter opportunity for the rabid anti-Obama forces in the halls of government itself, as well as in the streets.

So where is the outrage? Have Americans themselves become complicit in the loss of their own privacy and embraced the idea that their every text message, email, and Google search can, and probably will, be used against them -- possibly, one day, in a court of law? Are we all to be viewed as threats in order to serve the illusion of security? Or is this all a means to deliver us up to corporations?

Evidently, all of that is true, and that's only the half of it. Snowden paints a chilling picture of how powerful and extensive the data-gathering capacity of the intelligence community has become, and intimates that the model that's been adopted is one of universal monitoring.

Others who appear in the film, including an organizer of the Occupy movement, discuss how "metadata" -- the accumulation and cross-referencing of various kinds of information, such as geo-location, phone calls, credit card use and public transportation use -- provide details about a person's movements that, to the suspicious eye, can be linked together and spun up into any number of incriminating narratives, even when no crime has taken place.

You think social pressure to conform to political correctness is abrasive? Imagine living in a way that demands utter and continual self-censorship lest the wrong search term or Skype conversation or YouTube view brings the Feds knocking at your door.

It all sounds outrageous and impossible, of course; but then again, so does the very real capacity the NSA and other intelligence agencies worldwide have developed: The ability to monitor one billion phone calls simultaneously; the ability to search not only every online transaction, from an email to a purchase at Amazon, that you make from now on, but have ever made in the entire history of the Internet. Why establish that sort of data collection infrastructure, if not to use it?

And yet, in the wake of 9/11 and with the extreme latitude outlined in the Patriot Act, ordinary Americans seemed downright eager to throw themselves into just such a "1984"-esque nightmare. Commentators shown here testifying before committees talk about a loss of intellectual freedom; if that's where we're headed (or even where we're at this very moment), it's been with the agreement and participation of the American public who, as one talking head notes, now joke about the NSA monitoring their chat sessions.

"Citizenfour" plays like an international thriller, but the fact that it's real makes everything you see in this film feel like a real and present threat. Greenwald's Brazilian partner, David Miranda, is shown in news footage ager being detained for nine hours by U.S. Customs -- for the crime, one gathers, of being an important person in the life of a journalist who'd dare stick his nose into the shadowy doings of spooks and spies who have turned their tradecraft onto their own countrymen. If bullies act out of insecurity, then exactly why do our security experts feel this sort of harassment is needed?

That's only one of many questions this documentary raises. At the bottom, the murkiest issues are simply this: Is such a massively intrusive and systematic program of domestic spying warranted? Or is it engaged in simply because the capability to do so exists? Is Obama truly complicit, as this movie strongly suggests?

And if Obama, who has stood up for human rights and full legal protections for America's minorities, including LGBTs, can become embroiled in this sort of thing, then is anyone immune from its corrupting influence? For that matter, is it a case of corruption; is there a threat that's truly so pervasive and terrifying that such comprehensive spying is justified?

Even if that's so -- even if Obama wears the whitest of white hats -- what would a less benevolent leader do with this sort of spying program? Human nature being what it is, will this particular genie summon anything but catastrophe now that it's out of the bottle?

"Citizenfour" is only the latest wake-up call to America's slumbering masses. Don't count on it to create a sense of urgency or result in action. If human history -- and the long, mostly barbarous relationship between rulers and the ruled -- is any indication, "the people" are essentially inert and complacent, even when their economic prospects, legal protections, ecological surrounds, and social networks are failing around them. We see it happening everywhere; we see it happening right now. What we hear in response is the sound of distraction, and a chorus of yawns.

Perhaps that sound of indifference constitutes the vast bulk of all that information being gathered about every single one of us. Perhaps that's the saddest, and most infuriating, thing of all.

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AIRS ON HBO FEBRUARY 23, 2015

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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