Monday, November 3, 2014

Spies in the Garden of American Liberty: 'CitizenFour'

"... if you think no one knows whom you’re calling, what you’re texting, or what websites you’re patronizing, you should think again." -- Ty Burr, Boston Globe, Oct. 30, 2014              

If you already feel strongly that government surveillance,  or spying into all you phone calls and Internet communications and credit card transactions violates your Constitutional rights; and outraged that a systematic government intrusion into the personal lives of Americans has been planned and pursued in total secrecy without any public scrutiny... then you probably don't need to see the new film "CitizenFour."
            The film documents the act of going public with the revelation of a massive government surveillance system by a civilian "senior advisor" to the NSA (National Security Administration) named Edward Snowden.
            And if you believe this spying into everybody's personal business in the name of national security is an abuse of power, you probably don't need to be confronted with the realization that while the government's systematic storing of your complete digital footprint began during the Bush administration, it received approval and came to full fruition under Barack Obama, who warned during his 2008 campaign about the risk  of infringment on First Amendment freedoms posed in the name keeping us safe. Or to watch the film of his reaction to the exposure of a secret surveillance system far more extensive than anybody outside the government surveillance apparatus guessed, as he says he welcomes a national discussion of issues raised by the need to protect freedom of speech while keeping us safe -- but that he didn't want it to happen "this way."... When, in fact, he had already approved a massive government spying operation in complete secrecy without any public discussion of "the issues" whatsoever... And when he and everybody else in his administration kept their mouths shut as a top security bosses blatantly lied to the American public, denying the systematic surveillance of American citizens' private communications in response to direct questions raised on the floor of Congress.
            Because you will likely find this hypocrisy galling. You may feel (as I did) when watching this part of the film that Obama's reputation will never escape this self-inflicted wound.
            If on the other hand, you don't see what all the fuss has been about, then you probably should see "CitizenFour.'
            The film-maker, Elizabeth Poitras, who was contacted by Snowden when he decided to make the public aware of the existence of the government's secret surveillance system because she had made films about related subjects in the post-911 era, simply filmed Snowden's encounters with the journalists who broke his story. It's a reporter's procedural. The film has also been termed a "political thriller" or even "spy thriller" because the parties' interactions are conducted in pre-emptive 'hiding,' because they are plainly worried about government security police breaking in on them at any moment to find out what they are talking about and shutting them up when they do. The tension is gripping. Snowden plainly expects to end up in jail.
            But the film is also a documentary. Though conducted in hiding -- an anonymous hotel room in Hong Kong -- the film preserves a record of what Snowden says about his intentions, his concerns, his fears, the price he might pay, his desire to shield others from undeserved consequences. The two reporters' own thoughts of what they are doing and why -- Glenn Greenwald in particularly is remarkably articulate and effective in explaining the significance of complex technical issues -- are also on record. A record debunks slander. What we see is whistle blowing, not conspiracy. Poitras is not "a provocateur," Snowden is not attention-seeker, Greenwald is not a camera-hound with a scoop.
            As nonfiction cinema it breaks down the story and gives us information: pressured by the government Verizon agree to give up everything: all the calls that everybody makes. Google and Facebook and all the other Internet servers agree to give the government everything everybody does online; where you 'go' online, all your transactions. Your banks, your credit card company, your subway pass -- the same deal.
            What the NSA -- and the FBI -- do, will do, or might consider doing with all this information it has intercepted and continues to intercept is something we don't know. Hopefully very little. But is that a decision we feel secure about leaving up to appointed officials who will make it, and do what they decide to do, in the way they're most comfortable doing everything -- completely in the dark, with nobody watching?
            The bigger point has to be that this staggering level of a state's surveillance of so many of the routine, daily actions of all its citizens is a recipe for 1984.
            "CitizenFour" is filled with talk, short on action, often slow-moving. But it's also chilling.