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 “watch list” because of her previous documentary work (also attempting to uncover governmental overreach). It’s at this point that she suddenly begins receiving encrypted emails 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 low-budget investigation of faceless bureaucratic deception suddenly changes focus: It becomes a rather precise, detailed and mind-blowingly comprehensive insider whistle-blowing examination, precipitated by someone with intimate personal knowledge and the highest security clearances. Yes, Poitras has now unexpectedly hit the jackpot. She knows exactly what to do with it: She turns the camera squarely on Edward Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room, talking quietly to a couple of selected investigative journalists, rather matter-of-factly explaining why he’s now coming forward with all this explosively sensitive material.
And then she chronicles the immediate aftermath as 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. Chancellor Merkel of Germany, for example, was in such a huff about her personal cell phone being tapped that she canceled a scheduled visit with President Obama. Snowden even claims that he could sit at his desk at NSA and follow in real-time every moving or stationary drone set up or sent by any government agency. It’s so startlingly perverse that we are all collectively shaking our heads at this fantastic insider revelation. Predictably, there is pushback and backlash.
There are plenty within the security and surveillance community who view Snowden as no less than a conscienceless turncoat who should be hanged for treason. Snowden was so concerned for his own safety that he sought asylum, first in China, then in Russia, 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 Snowden’s revelations may well have compromised our legitimate information-collection activities abroad. 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.)
One thing is certain: After Edward Snowden’s bombshell revelations, things were never the same for us or for 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.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.