There are so many different ways
to approach this film. One
prominent critic, Godfrey Cheshire of RogerEbert.com, has dubbed it “the
movie of the century.”
But you may feel it’s unnecessary to watch it,
because you already know its content:
Edward Snowden, a once-obscure 29-year-old
analyst for the National Security Agency (NSA), becomes so concerned about the
pervasiveness of government surveillance on ordinary citizens that he leaks
hundreds of sensitive documents proving the incredibly long reach of Big
Brother Watching You (George Orwell’s famous phrase about ubiquitous
government oversight from his eerily prophetic novel entitled “1984,”
written in 1949).
This 2014 documentary, by Director
Laura Poitras, actually began as a tracking of governmental surveillance of
the Internet, showing officious officials solemnly testifying to Congress that
no such clandestine activity existed (presumably, their bald-faced lies were
in the interest of “protecting national security”).
Director Poitras, fearing that this kind of
Fascist patronization is what leads to a virtual police state, lets it be
known that this is her new project, but it will be worked overseas, because
she claims she’s being harassed at U.S. airport security entrances as being
on some kind of “watchlist” because of her previous documentary work (also
attempting to uncover governmental overreach).
It’s at this point that she suddenly begins
receiving encrypted e-mails from a very clever anonymous source, who claims
that he has more proof of her very contentions than she ever dreamed possible.
What began as a kind of low-budget
outside investigation of faceless bureaucratic deception suddenly completely
changes focus: it
becomes a rather precise, detailed, and mind-blowingly comprehensive insider
whistle-blowing, precipitated by someone with intimate personal knowledge and
the highest security clearances.
Yes, Director Poitras has now unexpectedly hit
the jackpot, and she knows exactly what to do with it:
she turns the camera squarely on Edward Snowden,
talking quietly to a couple of selected investigative journalists, rather
matter-of-factly explaining, in a Hong Kong hotel room, why he’s now coming
forward with all this explosively sensitive material.
And then she gets to chronicle the
immediate aftermath, as well, as the media outlets gleefully seize the story
about pervasive invasion of privacy, which alarms not only ordinary American
citizens, but leaders of other nations throughout the world.
, for example, was in such a huff about her personal cell phone
being tapped that she canceled a scheduled State visit with President Obama.
Mr. Snowden even claims that he could sit at his
desk at NSA and follow, in real-time, every drone, moving or stationary, which
has been set up or sent by any government agency, aimed at either foreign or
domestic targets. It’s
so startlingly perverse that we are all collectively shaking our heads at this
fantastic insider revelation, and yet, predictably, there is push-back and
backlash, as well.
There are plenty within the
security and surveillance community who view Mr. Snowden as no less than a
conscienceless turncoat who should be hanged for treason.
Mr. Snowden was so concerned for his own safety
that he sought asylum, first in
, which didn’t work, then in
, where he found himself temporarily stuck in an airport “no
man’s land” while government officials figured out how to respond to him.
We’re not sure how to respond to
him, either. Part
of us is glad to know the extent of our government’s systematic deception,
and another part of us is concerned that Mr. Snowden’s revelations may well
have compromised our legitimate information-collection activities abroad (yes,
we all know that we have spies, and so does every other country).
Mr. Snowden is considered a genuine hero by some
and a despicable traitor by others.
(And the same could be said of that other recent
infamous whistleblower, Julian Assange of Wikileaks, who makes a cameo
appearance in this documentary, as well.)
One thing is certain:
after Edward Snowden’s bombshell revelations,
things were never the same, for us or our governmental surveillance agencies.
For better and worse, this event changed the
whole landscape of modern culture.
It’s chronicled here as it happened, which
lends it a certain importance beyond its scope as a mere journalistic exposé.
Yeah, if there’s only one documentary you’re
going to watch this year, this would be the one.
Because it’s literally history in the making.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Parish
Associate, Woodhaven Presbyterian Church,