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Film Review


On that terrible morning of September 11, 2001, none of us will ever forget watching the World Trade Center towers burning, then collapsing. Many sensed that nothing would ever be the same, but the changes were not those that we ever expected. A week later President Bush announced the beginning of the war on terror, and The United States began to mobilize. One month later, we invaded Afghanistan in an attempt to capture Bin Laden and oust the Taliban government that sheltered him. Two years later (2003) we invaded Iraq, convinced that Saddam Hussein was helping Bin Laden and had developed weapons of mass destruction. Three years later (2006) Hussein was captured and executed, but no such weapons were ever found. Iraq and Afghanistan disintegrated into a spiral of violence that has essentially continued with little pause. The United States has been at war for 13 years, our longest war ever, which shows little sign of ending despite major troop withdrawals.

At home, at least 17 various security agencies, all under the umbrella of the Intelligence Community, were either newly formed or greatly increased in size and funding. These include the National Intelligence Agency, CIA, Department of Homeland Security, National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, and others more obscure. Their individual budgets are of course secret but it is estimated that the United States spends $49 billion per year (2013) on intelligence gathering, both domestically and foreign. The scale of these intelligence gathering operations is staggering: over 800,000 Americans now hold top secret security clearances and the government collects one terabyte of data every second. Not only are the intelligence gatherers part of the government, but about 30% of the people used by these agencies are employees of private contractors. Oversight has been greatly lacking, as revealed in Congressional hearings last year.

Rumors of wide spread electronic surveillance have long existed, but were consistently denied by both the Bush and the Obama administrations, as well as the heads of intelligence agencies. Keith Alexander and James Clapper, directors of the National Security Agency and the National Intelligence Agency respectively, both strongly denied in Congressional hearings that their agencies were doing systemic electronic surveillance and communication intercepts of American citizens. However last year an employee of an American contractor, working for the NSA, revealed huge surveillance efforts on the part of many government agencies. His proof was an enormous trove of top secret documents and e-mails. It became clear that Generals Alexander and Clapper had unequivocally lied to Congress. The source of the leaks was Edward J. Snowden, a young tech worker employed by Booz Hamilton. Snowden and his revelations soon became headline news and it seemed that each day more documents revealed massive government surveillance of nearly all Americans, the vast majority with no connection whatsoever to any possible involvement in anything other than quotidian life. Both administrations had argued that limited surveillance was necessary to keep us safe, but none had been candid with the public about the extent and legality. Americans soon discovered that they had effectively lost their right of privacy.

Laura Poitras, a American documentary film maker now living in Berlin, was contacted in early 2013 by a mysterious source, who said that he had some astonishing revelations and documents about massive government surveillance that he felt important to reveal to the public. He showed her how to encode her e-mails, and began sending her material. She met him in a Hong Kong hotel a few months later, along with Glenn Greenwald, an American reporter for The Guardian. Poitras had already made two films about Iraq: My Country, My Country (2006) and The Oath (2010), the first about the life of ordinary Iraqi's under the US occupation. My Country was an Academy Award nominee but The Oath won a major award at Sundance. Both films were part of a planned trilogy with the third intended to be about William Binney, a senior government intelligence figure who became a whistleblower. However Poitras's initial contacts with Snowden convinced her that she needed to broaden the topic of her third film. Binney is featured prominently in Citizenfour but the core of the film is the footage of 8 days of interviews with Snowden in his hotel room, with Greenwald doing most of the questioning while Poitras stays behind the camera, with an occasional comment. There is a Frederick Wiseman-like quality to this section of the film. Snowden seems shy, is very calm, highly articulate, obviously dedicated, and willing to risk much in order to make the American public aware of these secret programs. But Snowden is worried that the focus on him will obscure his message, which became partially true. Greenwald won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for his series in the Guardian based on these interviews.

An hour of these interviews sounds tedious, but they are riveting and left me anxious, furious and sad. Anxious that the intelligence community appears to have become a runaway, accountable to no one. And furious because of the extent and secrecy of these operations and their potential for eliminating most privacy, hence ending the right to simply be left alone. All this in the name of national security. No one seems to know if this enormous mobilization of our security agencies, the huge costs, and the loss of liberties have contributed to our really being safer. It seems to me that our reaction to the horrific attack on the World Trade Center has been one of hysterics and overreaction. It has been contributory to the militarization of our police forces and produced security measures that seem grossly disproportional to any threat. Eisenhower famously warned of the military industrial complex, but the intelligence and security agency complex seems far more frightening. And a reality now. So each viewer will draw their own conclusions about Snowden: hero or traitor, or both?

Citizenfour was finished only 16 months after the Snowden interviews and opened in theaters a month ago, with very strong reviews. However Poitras had been paying a price for her earlier investigative journalism. Since her first film was released, she has been detained more than 40 times at US airports, always released quickly, but clearly on a watch list. Citizenfour is that rare example of a well done documentary, shocking in its revelations, and that surely will have lasting importance. Every American needs to see this film, even if at home (when was the last time you ever heard me say that?). Fortunately it is still screening widely here in the Bay Area, including Opera Plaza, the Rafael, the Guild (San Mateo), and the Albany Twin. Running time: 114 minutes.

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