Not so coincidentally, I just finished reading, for the first time though of course I'd watched the movie by Alan Pakula a dozen times, All the President's Men
, the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about the Watergate case and their reporting of it. It still holds up incredibly well. Despite knowing a lot about the Watergate affair in advance, and the awareness Bob Woodward will end up as the prototype of the embedded reporter in love with power a few years down the line, the narrative is gripping, suspenseful, and despite featuring a huge cast (even huger than the movie, which prudently jettisoned a few players as movies must to get it down to a two hour tale), you never lose sight of all the interconnections or the developments. The various politicians, hangers-on, Washington Post staff people are given pen portraits, and what surprised me was that Bernstein apparantly was willing to either write himself or have included - all is written in third person, so you can't tell who wrote what - scenes which poke fun at him (Woodward not so much), like this one about a conference with the recently deceased Ben Bradlee ending: Bernstein was dissappointed to see the meeting end. The editor had pushed his left sleeve up, and Bernstein had seen a tattoo of a rooster. Bernstein momentarily forgot about Watergate. Bradlee, whom he regarded with an unhealthy imbalance of respect, fear, anger and self pity (Bradlee didn't
understand him, he had decided long before) was always amazing him. He wished he'd gotten a better look at the tattoo.
Because Woodward and Bernstein for a while ended up is the
iconic reporters, it's easy to overlook how young they were when this all went down, and stuff like this humanizes them. (Another Bernstein-making-fun-of-himself scene is when his bike got stolen and he reflects how typical this is: when Woodward goes into a garage, it's to meet Deep Throat, when he goes, it's to find the remains of a lock and a stolen bike.)
Such neat touches aside: what makes the book is of course the story it tells, and the relentless way it traces and uncovers the corruption of the political process all the way back to the White House. (And Woodward & Bernstein, unlike today's readers, weren't even familiar with the paranoid Nixon rants immortalized on tape when writing this, as the book ends before Nixon leaves office.) Though it's not a little depressing that a lot of the campaign tactics they uncover today are taken for granted. To use a list from mid book: bugging, following people, false press leaks, fake letters, cancelling campaign rallies, investigating campaign workers private lives, planting spies, stealing documents, planting provocateurs in political demonstrations
Planting spies and bugging, we were told by White House officials (and a lot of other people of all parties and persuasions) more recently, is absolutely okay because everyone does it. It's not something even Richard Nixon came up with as an excuse. (His most famous quote in the Frost interview being "if the President does it, it's not illegal", which is a similar idea, more personalized.) Which brings me to, you guessed it, Laura Poitras' movie Citizenfour
about Edward Snowden and surrounding circumstances. But before I talk about the movie itself, some thoughts which have been plagueing me for a while. It is this: why didn't become Snowden, Greenwald and Poitras the new Woodward and Bernstein in the eyes of the American public? Especially the not conservative part of it? They certainly did in my part of the world (Germany), but within the States, at least compared to over here, the reactions were pretty much blasé. The right wing attacks on Obama focus on other stuff, and the democratic/progressive criticism of Obama and his government that I've seen mostly seems to be divided between a) "Why can't you be more like... *insert past democratic president of choice with ability to schmooze and intimidate other politicians on a nose-to-nose level*", b) "Why so sloppiliy organized?" , and c) "Where's the promised change, this "the Republicans are blocking everything" excuse isn't doing it for me anymore". Whereas voices like Daniel "Pentagon Papers" Ellsberg's are rare, who firmly rejected John Kerry (and Obama) saying Snowden should have done as Ellsberg did
and faced a trial in the US by stating he wouldn't do that in the current day US, either (and good lord, when you're told your government is less trustworthy in terms of human rights abuse than Richard Nixon's...), and witheringly added: (Snowden) would have no chance whatsoever to come home and make his case – in public or in court. Snowden would come back home to a jail cell – and not just an ordinary cell-block but isolation in solitary confinement, not just for months like Chelsea Manning but for the rest of his sentence, and probably the rest of his life. His legal adviser, Ben Wizner, told me that he estimates Snowden's chance of being allowed out on bail as zero. (I was out on bond, speaking against the Vietnam war, the whole 23 months I was under indictment). More importantly, the current state of whistleblowing prosecutions under the Espionage Act makes a truly fair trial wholly unavailable to an American who has exposed classified wrongdoing. (...) Without reform to the Espionage Act that lets a court hear a public interest defense – or a challenge to the appropriateness of government secrecy in each particular case – Snowden and future Snowdens can and will only be able to "make their case" from outside the United States. (...) John Kerry's challenge to Snowden to return and face trial is either disingenuous or simply ignorant that current prosecutions under the Espionage Act allow no distinction whatever between a patriotic whistleblower and a spy. Either way, nothing excuses Kerry's slanderous and despicable characterizations of a young man who, in my opinion, has done more than anyone in or out of government in this century to demonstrate his patriotism, moral courage and loyalty to the oath of office the three of us swore: to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.
Ouch. But like I said, Mr. Ellsberg as far as American voices are concerned seems to be in a distinct minority. And I don't think the reason is just the public as a whole having become fare more jaded. Becaube, Democrats, Liberals and Progressives on my list, ask yourself, and I'm truly curious: if Snowden had blown the whistle under a Republican president - doesn't matter who, McCain or Romney if they had won their respective elections, or Bush back when - would your reaction have been different? (And it could have easily happened. I don't think any Republican - or any alternate Democrat President, for that matter, i.e. Hillary Clinton if she'd won against Obama in the primaries - would have given the NSA & Co. less leaveway to spy on everyone than the Obama administration did.) Would you have been not only more outraged, but also seen the sheer extent of the licence to spy as something that does reflect the President's personal responsibility the way Watergate did reflect Nixon's? Because I really think the reason why Obama gets more leaveway here than any Republican President would have gotten is because Obama-as-bad-guy really, really, really doesn't fit into the narrative moderate-to-progressive Americans want to hear. Partly because it automatically associates right wing nutters (though these attack him for other reasons) and the sense of not wanting to give them more ammunition, I suppose. But partly because they seem so far apart: Tricky Dicky, Nixon paranoidly taping himself ranting about the Jews/Gays/Press/, and the first black President. He's supposed to be, at worst, the hero who couldn't due to the mess his predecessor left and the Republicans blocking his every move, not the licenser of tactics which any of the titular President's Men from Nixon's time would have wept for joy to be able to use legally.
Now, on to Poitras' movie. Which definitely treats Obama as one of its villains. He's not the prime target, which is the post 9/11 mass surveillance and the total lack of any checks on it in general, and it's made clear early on by veteran whistleblower William Binney, who quit the NSA in 2001, that the Bush administration started this, but among other things, Citizenfour
is an indictement of Barack Obama. Glenn Greenwald early on in the film quotes from Obama's campaign speeches (for his first run), all quotes condemming what he now practices. Then Edward Snowden in his first physical meeting with Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald names as one of his key motivations the fact that the Obama administration contrary to its promises didn't reduce or curtail the surveillance but escalated it. And while Poitras throughout the film uses clips of various government officials (Keith Alexander, former NSA head, and various guys from the justice department) denying with bland smugness what the film then shows going on, the climax this builds up is a cut from the Guardian staff being forced to destroy hardware to Glenn Greenwald's partner David being held back at Heathrow after a meeting with her in Berlin to a newsclip of Obama (even smugger than the previous officials) saying Snowden was no patriot and should return to the US where lawful trial would happen. (At this point there was scornful laughter in the cinema.) And the very end of the movie, when Greenwald tells Snowden about a new source and its revelations, he draws the chain of responsibility on paper culminating in the letters POTUS, where camera lingers as a next to last final image.
Poitras' biggest problem as film maker must have been that this documentary by necessity takes place largely in hotel rooms where two or three people talk (or type), which potentially could have come across very static and boring. But she managed to avoid this trap, not least because Snowden and Greenwald (who do much of the talking, with fellow Guardian journalist Ewen MacArgill occasionally there as well) both come across as articulate and compelling. And as with All the President's Men
, even though you know the rough outline of how this goes in advance - Snowden makes contact, eventually they meet in that Hongkong hotel room, data is transferred, explanation are given, Geenwald starts to release the stories, on the fourth day Snowden's identity is released as well, etc. - the way it plays out on screen remains captivating. Also like All the President's Men
, the book, there's unexpected humor: when Poitras tells Snowden (via written communication online, since he's in Russia at that point) that the Merkel story is a go, but the German government hasn't publically reacted yet, Snowden types back whether she has tried to call Angela M. directly since she now has the number. :) There's even a mini subplot, as you'd say if this were a fictional story, about Snowden's girlfriend whom he worries about in Hongkong and whom we in the last five minutes of the film see has joined him in Russia in July this year.
It's, of course, an unabashedly partisan documentary, cum ira et studio
, and never pretends to be anything else: the opening credits establish Poitras has been under surveillance since her first post 9/11 movie on the Iraq War, and while you get to know Snowden and Greenwald in the intimacy and extensive length of those hotel room conversations, administration members are only shown in (smug) newsclips. But the main argument, which Poitras lets Binney, Greenwald and Snowden make repeatedly, and also Joseph Applebaum, that surveillance is control, there are no restraints and no watchers on these watchmen anymore, that only a tiny part of the collected material actually can in any way be connected to counterterrorism and the rest is about competition between firms, industrial espionage and utter disregard of any privacy whatsover, and that the self censorship of people is already an every day fact because of this - all this can hardly be told dispassionatedly. Ditto for the point Snowden's pro bono lawyers later make about the Espionage act, which dates from WWI and doesn't differentiate between a whistleblower and a spy (Ellsberg has quite a lot to say about it in his article as welll) and gives the person indicted by it no chance of defense.
Stylistically noteworthy: as opposed to Michael Moore, who made his persona a part of all his films, Poitras remains invisible, though her voice is present throughout the film. And the clips she uses to establish the various locations (Hongkong, Berlin, Rio de Janairo) never show the obvious tourist sights; the most striking images not involving a person aren't of the cities, though, but of the NSA complexes being built in the US and the ones already existing in Britain and Germany, those ominous white balloons in front of landscapes.
Is the end result then a great movie? I don't know. But it's an important one, I think. And I hope it will be watched by as many people as possible.