Saturday, December 6, 2014

Citizenfour (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Most are familiar with the NSA scandal because of revelations such as the fact that Verizon and AT & T have submitted indiscriminate phone records of random innocent citizens under the guise of the Patriot Act since 9-11. But this overreach is especially damning to the Obama administration. As a candidate in 2007, Obama said,  in paraphrase, that a president has no moral justification for these actions.

How I wish Obama had stuck to his conviction but, sadly, he did not.

"Citizenfour" is a documentary by Laura Poitras about  this very real abuse, and it also provides a gripping portrait of the man some love to discredit, and some champion: Edward Snowden, a former government NSA agent and now an exile.

As a story, it is as eerie as anything by "Gone Girl" director David Fincher.

Director Poitras  is contacted by truth seeker Glenn Greenwald as a result of her reportage, and their communication is encrypted. After seeing glimpses of Snowden as little more than a fractal phantom or a digital wraith, Poitras has a chance to meet the man in Hong Kong at a high-rise hotel.

After a series of laconic emails Snowden is revealed and the abrupt sight of him in daylight is a bit like seeing an exotic leopard for the first time.

He is open and direct, far from shy, yet with no apparent hunger for fame. He declares unapologetically that he had to tell the American people that they were, and still are, being watched and tracked with impunity.

While Obama once had a hands off policy and would not think of reaching into privacy matters, he now sees Snowden as an anti-patriot of sorts and criminalizes him in no uncertain terms.

Former NSA agent Bill Benney corroborates Snowden's position: that Verizon and by extension, the Obama administration, indeed harvested millions of private phone records, and shopping receipts from, without cause and without discrimination.

Such acts appear horridly blatant and painfully hard to justify.

The most striking passages of this film occur when we see Edward as a kind of 21st century Shelley figure, typing away on his laptop, then moving quickly to the bathroom, a techo-Turkish wrap on his head. Snowden is frequently shown lazing upon a glacially white bed, his legs curled under him, his long ivory fingers his only prized possession, propelled in motion.

There is existential humor too, as Snowden is constantly harassed by phone, with Selena Gomez on TV, only to be interrupted by CNN's Wolf Blitzer announcing Snowden as Public Enemy #1. Pale and iced, a languid Edward moves to the bathroom with eye drops and hair gel, transforming himself into a neo-romantic figure of sorts. Donning a black coat, he strives to shade his face. He is part Isadore Ducasse combined with a dash of Guy Fawkes creating an all disturbing truth.

Our final sight of Snowden is in a Moscow apartment as he hovers over soup, almost daring the American public to consider him an ordinary citizen, were it not for the huge pot on the stove that bubbles away like some sort of sorcerer's cauldron, not to mention the huge green winding houseplant that is carnivorous and alive--a pulsating anarchist aloe.

The most provocative moment of all in "Citizenfour" (in addition to Edward Snowden on a Megatron screen next to a Coach store) is the sight of a clinically dispassionate Obama flatly discrediting Snowden as criminally unpatriotic.

Time will tell. As Shelley wrote, "Power, like a desolating pestilence, pollutes whate're it touches; and obedience, bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth, makes slaves of men..."  Where we once had Byron, Keats and Chatterton highlighting the evils of conformity and the tread of status quo, we now have the ice pale personages of Julian Assange and Ed Snowden rising from the binary ethosphere to point the errs of our age.

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