NYT: Defying An All-Seeing Eye
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Tags: Democracy, Education, Human Rights, Law Enforcement, Living Standards, Security
Intent on Defying an All-Seeing Eye
There are two ways to look at “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras’s documentary about Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor whose revelations of widespread surveillance launched a hundred Op-Ed columns a year ago. The first and most obvious is as a piece of advocacy journalism, a goad to further argument about how security and transparency should be balanced in a democracy, about how governments abuse technology, about how official secrets are kept and exposed. The second is as a movie, an elegant and intelligent contribution to the flourishing genre of dystopian allegory.
Those who regard Mr. Snowden as an unambiguous hero, risking his freedom and comfort to expose abuses of power, will find much to agree with in Ms. Poitras’s presentation of his actions. This film is an authorized portrait, made at its subject’s invitation. In 2013, Mr. Snowden, using encrypted email under the alias “citizen four,” contacted Ms. Poitras and the journalist Glenn Greenwald, inviting them to meet him in Hong Kong, where he would share what he had learned about the N.S.A.’s capacity to intercept data from the phone calls, emails and web wanderings of American citizens. When asked why he had chosen her, Mr. Snowden, his identity still electronically shrouded, replied that she had selected herself, based on her previous work as a journalist and filmmaker, including a short documentary about William Binney, an N.S.A. whistle-blower who also appears in “Citizenfour.”
And “Citizenfour,” much of which consists of conversations between Mr. Snowden and Mr. Greenwald, emphasizes his bravery and his idealism, and the malignancy of the forces ranged against him. This is obviously a partial, partisan view, and several journalists on the national security and technology beats — among them Fred Kaplan at Slate and Michael Cohen (formerly of The Guardian) at The Daily Beast — have pointed out omissions and simplifications. Those criticisms, and George Packer’s long, respectful and skeptical profile of Ms. Poitras in a recent issue of The New Yorker, express the desire for a middle ground, a balance between the public right to know and the government’s need to collect intelligence in the fight against global terrorism.
Fair enough, I guess. Such balance may be a journalistic shibboleth; it is not necessarily a cinematic virtue. “The Fifth Estate,” last year’s nondocumentary attempt to tell the story of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, bogged down in the pursuit of sensible moderation, losing the chance to write history in lightning.
“Citizenfour,” happily, suffers no such fate. Cinema, even in the service of journalism, is always more than reporting, and focusing on what Ms. Poitras’s film is about risks ignoring what it is. It’s a tense and frightening thriller that blends the brisk globe-trotting of the “Bourne” movies with the spooky, atmospheric effects of a Japanese horror film. And it is also a primal political fable for the digital age, a real-time tableau of the confrontation between the individual and the state.
Mr. Snowden’s face is by now well known — it has been printed on demonstrators’ masks and stylized posters — but when he first encounters Ms. Poitras and her camera, he is anonymous and invisible, a nervous young man in a Hong Kong hotel room. He is shy, pale and serious, explaining his actions and motives in a mixture of technical jargon and lofty moral rhetoric. While he seems almost naïve about the machinery of celebrity that is about to catch him in its gears, he is adamant in his desire to take public responsibility for his actions, partly to protect others who might be blamed. At the same time, he defers to Mr. Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, a reporter for The Guardian, about when, how and how much of the information he is passing on will be shared with their readers.
Maybe some of this is ordinary-guy shtick, but it hardly matters. What makes Mr. Snowden fascinating — a great movie character, whatever you think of his cause — is the combination of diffidence, resolve and unpretentious intelligence that makes him so familiar. Slightly hipsterish, vaguely nerdy, with a trace of the coastal South in his voice (he was born in North Carolina and grew up mostly in Maryland), he is someone you might have seen at Starbucks or college or Bonnaroo. One of us, you might say.
But if he is us, then who is them? The officials from the Obama and George W. Bush administrations who have defended the N.S.A. in court, before Congress and on television, promising that the rule of law and the rights of citizens are being respected, even as the bad guys are being chased down and spied upon? Those presidents themselves, who preach liberty even as they expand the prerogatives of the executive branch? The telecommunications executives who collude in the collection of data?
All of the above, but maybe also not quite any of them. Plenty of movies have tried to imagine the contours of state power, but “Citizenfour” stands alone in evoking the modern state as an unseen, ubiquitous presence, an abstraction with enormous coercive resources at its disposal. To some extent, Ms. Poitras and Mr. Greenwald are engaged in a theoretical inquiry, a kind of speculative mapping, of the shape and reach of this mysterious entity. That is not to say that the United States government’s data collection program is not real, but rather that its extent and implications are only beginning to be understood.
Mr. Greenwald, a prolific writer and prodigious talker (in Portuguese, too!), has made his case against secrecy and surveillance in numerous articles, blog posts, books and television appearances. Ms. Poitras, who does not appear on camera in her film and speaks only when reading Mr. Snowden’s emails to her, pursues a slightly different project. She deploys the tools of her trade — spooky music and fluid editing, subtle camera movements and suggestive compositions — to try to coax a specter into view.
It is everywhere and nowhere, the leviathan whose belly is our native atmosphere. Mr. Snowden, unplugging the telephone in his room, hiding under a blanket when typing on his laptop, looking mildly panicked when a fire alarm is tested on his floor, can seem paranoid. He can also seem to be practicing a kind of avant-garde common sense. It’s hard to tell the difference, and thinking about the issues Ms. Poitras raises can induce a kind of epistemological vertigo. What do we know about what is known about us? Who knows it? Can we trust them? These questions are terrifying, and so is “Citizenfour.”