How disheartening to watch the construction of large slabs of concrete buildings in the desert of Utah to store the mushrooming amounts of data the government is accumulating. Similar data sites, and satellites for spying on our telephone calls, exist also in Great Britain, their blank facades not so unlike the bland architecture of the Hong Kong hotel where the majority of the action of the movie takes place. Edward Snowden, a young man with a one day growth of beard, at first confident in his mission, articulates the methods the NSA uses to spy on all of us. By the time Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian‘s reporter, is about to publish who he is, Snowden has grown more gaunt, his beard more pronounced, dark circles under his eyes. Intelligent as he is, having considered what he was going to do long before he actually does it, his surprise and upset after texting with his long time girlfriend, are evident.
The questions raised by Snowden, and the movie: Why should the NSA, and by implication, the U.S. government, including all three branches, get a pass on having access to every citizen’s private business without our permission? Are those who question and expose the government’s secret policies given due process? What has the rule of law become since September 11? How effective is broad collection of private data?
Snowden is treated with great care and respect by Glenn Greenwald, a writer and lawyer who is much more of a gadfly and a scold. Though we never see Laura Poitras, we hear her voice as she reads the emails of Snowden, and read her texts. The most highly prized opinions in the movie are those of Snowden, portrayed as a pure of heart citizen who sees an encroachment of power, violation of privacy, and skirting of the rule of law. There are many images of computer screens. They show code being broken, dialogue displayed through real time texts. But the saddest, loneliest image to me is of Snowden leaving the hotel with his only belongings: two shopping bags full of power cords.
An earlier whistleblower, William Binney, who worked for the NSA for decades, has more gravitas. In an interview with NPR, he said, “I had to get out of there, because they were using the program I built to do domestic spying, and I didn’t want any part of it, I didn’t want to be associated with it,” he says. “I look at it as basically treason. They were subverting the Constitution.”
Laura Poitras’ previous films, My Country, My Country (2006) and The Oath (2010), are about how the United States has changed since September 11 by broadening its power in violation of the constitution. It is an important body of work.