I’ve just returned from watching CitizenFour, Laura Poitras’ new film about Edward Snowden. Poitras was invited, along with Glenn Greenwald (then of the Guardian), to meet Snowden in Hong Kong to share the information he wanted released about American government surveillance programs.
The thing feels like a Bourne movie, even though it’s almost entirely people sitting around rooms talking (and several shots of emails on black screens). The gathering sense of dread is similar except, of course, in this case, it’s real.
One of the more eye-opening scenes in the film is a meeting of lawyers working pro bono on Snowden’s defense.
The conversation is about the fact that he’s been charged under The Espionage Act, an 1840’s-era law that assumes a spy working for a foreign power. Any argument that Snowden could make to justify his acts – that the information was unreasonably classified, that it should not have been collected in the first place, that he was acting in the public interest – would have been inadmissable in court under this charge.
So much for a fair trial.
The film shows other whistleblowers who’ve come forward and been ignored. The difference with Snowden was the scope of what he revealed and the Powerpoint presentations he made public that not only detailed what the programs did but their intent – the dispassionate narrator talking blandly about collecting everyone’s information all the time, worldwide, without bothering about charges or due cause or any of that old-fashioned rule-of-law stuff.
By contrast, you see Snowden in a t-shirt on a hotel bed sending emails back and forth to his girlfriend, explaining that he’s gone and likely not coming back. You see him flinch when the fire alarm goes off in the hall outside. You see him trying to get his hair to behave when the lawyer comes to smuggle him off to the local UN office and then underground. He’s tetchy, uncomfortable – very human – and uncertain about almost everything except his determination that these programs must be revealed to the American public.
I’ve paid attention to the story so I can’t say there was anything in the film that took me totally by surprise. I walked home feeling like I had a better sense of Edward Snowden. I was much less certain, however, about the United States of America. I recognize the place less and less lately.
Go. Disagree with me violently but go anyway. See the film for yourself. Whatever you think you know, go and see how you feel after.
This subject can’t just pass into oblivion without public debate. If we let all this happen without a major stink, we deserve whatever we’re about to get. Because the bottom line is, this is our lives, not a movie.
Addendum: Here’s a link to an interview with William Binney, the former high NSA official and the other whistleblower shown in the film.