Last year at the Oscars, I thought The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s innovative examination of mass killings in Indonesia during the 1960s, deserved to win for best feature documentary. Instead, the Academy gave the award to to a film with broader appeal, 20 Feet From Stardom, a review of life as a background singer on pop records. At the time, a friend quipped, “20 Feet From Politics.” This year, however, the Academy didn’t shy away from awarding a nakedly political film: Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, a stunning vérité account of the initial reporting on Edward Snowden’s leak of secret material about the National Security Agency, took home the biggest documentary prize of the year.
While, to my mind, The Act of Killing may have deserved to win, Citizenfour’s victory was more necessary. No matter its reverberations in today’s Indonesia and despite the sheer artistry of the story’s presentation, a film ultimately about history cannot take precedence, in a political sense, over one telling us precisely where the most powerful nation in the history of the world is going astray—on a crash course with the very foundations of hundreds of years of liberal, democratic progress. And that’s just what Citizenfour does. The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott might’ve put it best, calling the film “a primal political fable for the digital age, a real-time tableau of the confrontation between the individual and the state.”
The stakes are established early on the film, when Poitras’s voice reads aloud an e-mail she received from Snowden towards the beginning of their conversations: “From now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, article you write, site you visit, subject line you type is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not.”
In the course of the documentary, Poitras travels to Hong Kong with Glenn Greenwald to meet Snowden, who explains on camera who he is and what he is handing over to the journalists: a trove of documents detailing worldwide spying operations of the NSA and its partners. The challenge of exposing such information seems considerable, but Snowden handles it with an ease that betrays his intelligence and determination; he remains his own best spokesman. And that’s why more people, even if just a few at a time, need to see the film, something the Oscar win is sure to help accomplish.
Snowden himself could not have been more clear about understanding all of this in a statement he released shortly after the announcement of Citizenfour’s Oscar victory. “When Laura Poitras asked me if she could film our encounters, I was extremely reluctant. I’m grateful that I allowed her to persuade me,” Snowden said, via the ACLU. “My hope is that this award will encourage more people to see the film and be inspired by its message that ordinary citizens, working together, can change the world.” (Disclosures: Greenwald, a principal subject of Citizenfour, and Jeremy Scahill, a former contributor to The Nation who also appears in the film, are both personal friends. I am under contract with the site Greenwald, Scahill and Poitras started, The Intercept, for a forthcoming piece.)
The importance of the Snowden saga’s shocking revelations was on display again last week, when The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill and Josh Begley (also a friend) published a piece based on yet more Snowden documents. They detailed efforts of the NSA and its partners in British intelligence to steal, in bulk, encryption keys for cell-phone SIM cards, allowing the spy agencies to easily listen in on any communications—calls, texts, e-mails, anything—sent over the cell-phone service provider’s network. In order to acquire encryption keys, Scahill and Begley reported, the spies “accessed the e-mail and Facebook accounts of engineers and other employees of major telecom corporations and SIM card manufacturers.”
Scahill and Begley pointed out that Barack Obama, after the Snowden revelations began, sought to reassure the world that “the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security.” But that turns out, in this latest story, to be yet another falsehood pushed by the US government about its intelligence work. ACLU technologist Chris Soghoian told The Intercept, of the engineers and telecom employees, “These people were specifically hunted and targeted by intelligence agencies, not because they did anything wrong, but because they could be used as a means to an end.”
Perhaps most disturbing, that “end” doesn’t even pretend to be an aim of thwarting terrorist plots or even listening in on terrorist communications. Rather, what was once regarded as means of achieving these aims—collecting intelligence—has become the end in and of itself. That goal stems from an ethos attributed to former NSA chief General Keith Alexander: “collect it all.” Just a few weeks ago, the journalist Mattathias Schwartz, writing in The New Yorker, cast more doubt on the efficacy of vacuming up, as Alexander once rendered it, “the whole haystack.”
So “collect it all” might not even work well, yet it remains the order of the day for America’s top spies. And at every turn before and after Snowden’s revelations, US officials up to and including Obama himself can’t seem to tell the truth about what they’re doing. At one point in Citizenfour, Snowden, in his typical stark manner, explains just what the goal is: “We are building the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind.”
Weapons aren’t always deployed, but we should all worry about the potential power they can unleash when they are. That’s what makes Snowden’s revelations so significant, and so essential for our democracy. If an Oscar win brings more attention to the film and the warning Snowden persuasively delivers in it, all the better.