Cine-framing the morally monumental

Print edition : June 27, 2014

Glenn Greenwald. His book, "No Place to Hide", is the basis for one of the two films being made on Snowden. Photo: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/AFP

Edward Snowden in Hong Kong in June 2013. Photo: Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras/The Guardian/AP

OF the two books based on which the two films announced on the Snowden phenomenon are to be made, the one by Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, has legitimate claim to be closer to the man. Greenwald, after all, had very intimate access to Snowden in the dramatic period leading to the latter being “outed” (a strange Americanism that has gained currency, while continuing to sound odd to the English language, through this event) as the one behind the release of secret National Security Agency (NSA) documents about mass indiscriminate surveillance and violation of the personal rights and privacy of leaders and peoples across the world by the United States’ intelligence agencies. The best thing going for the other book, The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man, by The Guardian’s Luke Harding is that it is to be directed by Oliver Stone, who has a formidable reputation as an independent minded and uncompromising filmmaker and can therefore be counted on not to soft pedal or sanitise the facts to suit the exaggerated and imagined security concerns of the U.S. administration. But then Greenwald has called it a “bullshit book” and questioned the authenticity of an account by one who has not even met Snowden. He further hints that Harding had sought to cannibalise his exclusive material on Snowden and that to prevent this he had had to discontinue an interview with his erstwhile Guardian colleague.

One can already see the two films being mired in a spate of recriminations. There will, of course, be the agency of the state keen to try and ensure that they do not end up glorifying its worst bete noire in recent memory. Sections of the tailing chauvinistic press, by now accustomed to throwing stones at Stone, so to speak, are at it again. What else can you expect, is their refrain, from a leftist filmmaker—one who would desecrate both JFK and Nixon—than celebrating this enemy of the nation? But more worrisome is whether, and how much, a film can capture the sheer moral monumentality of Snowden’s courageous act of conscientious objection born out of his deep personal conviction. The operational details of how he went about what he did, which are really the lesser attendant part of his act, may end up being the film if it is treated as a spy thriller.

Greenwald’s account already reads for a good part—outside of his indignant reflections on the surveillance state and vituperation against those who promote it and those, including the mainstream media, who are complicit by lending a helping hand, turning a blind eye or just letting it be—like a cloak and dagger plot. He combines the passion of the blogger with the legal acumen of the lawyer in telling his tale. The events are riveting enough as they unfold. But he brings to it a creative freedom which may not be compromising with accuracy but seems journalistically curious. Dialogues between him and his ally, the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, or on the phone with the Editor of Guardian US, Janine Gibson, with Snowden himself, or even with or between those playing smaller roles in this real-life drama, are reproduced verbatim, which leads you to wonder whether he was recording it all or retelling it from memory, no doubt substantially correctly. But it does sit uneasy on a rigorous journalistic framework to find in quotation marks what a person may not have said exactly as quoted. But then these dialogues pace up and tense up the narrative and work eminently in terms of keeping the plot engaging. There are already lines there one can imagine in the completed film.

Perhaps it is the mode of the diarist or the blogger that Greenwald adopts here which allows for such creative liberties. But then again, Greenwald takes umbrage at his journalistic persona being subordinated to that of the blogger, even though it was as a blogger that he set out and made a mark in 2005 writing about exposure by The New York Times of Bush sanctioning surveillance on U.S. citizens even in 2001. Pointing to his blogger rather than journalist stature is how, he believes, the “beltway media” in the U.S. tries to chip away at his credibility. It was, nevertheless, the blog activism of the intrepid lawyer that prompted Snowden to seek him out.

Paradoxically, and this again has such rich cinematic promise, the potential whistle-blower in search of his intermediary to the world keeps running into a wall because Greenwald does not respond to Snowden’s initial feelers directed to him via emails in December 2012. Snowden uses the pseudonym “Cincinnatus”, referring to the fifth century B.C. Roman statesman Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus who, after his son had been condemned to death, was living the life of an ordinary farmer, but when called upon to defend Rome against an invasion, did so promptly and successfully and then, without being tempted by the fruits or spoils of his success, returned to his modest farm life. Cincinnatus hints to his chosen media conduit that he has crucial secret information to reveal, but wants Greenwald to first encrypt his computer to create a secure channel of communication between them. Greenwald does not, partly because he is not technologically very conversant with encryption codes (although Cincinnatus offers to walk him through a foolproof one step by step) and partly because he does not know how serious or important this offer was. “He was unwilling” Greenwald recalls, “to tell me anything specific about what he had or even who he was and where he worked unless I installed encryption. But without the enticement of specifics, it was not a priority to respond to his request and take the time to install the programme”.

Snowden then gets in touch with Laura Poitras and through her inducts Greenwald into his carefully orchestrated whistle-blowing project. After they have met at the hotel in Hong Kong where Snowden is hiding out and worked out the meticulous plan of action to expose the NSA documents Greenwald mentions to him about a person using the name Cincinnatus trying to get in touch with him earlier; only then does Snowden let on that it was he in the Roman guise online. As Greenwald puts it, he discloses “with more than a small trace of mockery… that Cincinnatus was himself”.

Facing the world

The secret rendezvous in Hong Kong is itself, of course, the highlight of the story. Snowden has decided that he will expose himself as the whistle-blower so that his kith and kin or colleagues at work are not harassed to get to him. He has, in fact, left telltale traces on his work computers that will lead to him as the source of the leaks. He is at his most vulnerable when he contemplates what might happen to his family: “That’s the one thing that keeps me up all night, what will happen to them?” His eyes, recounts Greenwald, well up at the thought, “the first and only time I saw that happen”. He has no illusions about what awaits him: “I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions, and that the return of this information to the public marks my end” because “I have been to the darkest corners of government and what they fear is light”. He had been preparing himself for the consequences of his action for some time: “I decided a while ago that I can live with whatever they do to me. The only thing I can’t live with is knowing I did nothing.” He is also clear that he does not himself want to become the story and distract from the importance of his leaks. Hence, in a calibrated move, Greenwald puts out four stories in The Guardian —his aggressive negotiation with the Editor to force their publication deadlines is a nail-biting side plot —before he steps into the public view himself. The four stories appearing in quick succession were on the shadow FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court asking Verizon to provide the NSA with all the telephone call records of Americans, about Bush’s “warrantless eavesdropping” programme based on a highly confidential report from NSA’ Inspector General, and about the ‘Boundless Informant’ and ‘Prism’ programmes. And then Laura Poitras’ neat, testimonial-like video recording of him at his Hong Kong hotel is released online, and instantly goes viral, where we see a surprisingly young, almost boyish, bespectacled and earnest face begin in a measured voice: “ Um, my name is Ed Snowden. I am twenty-nine years old, I work for Booz Allen Hamilton as an infrastructure analyst for NSA in Hawai….”

The suspenseful play around the anonymity and eventual dramatic revelation of the protagonist’s identity would, ab initio, have been hold-your-breath thriller material. But given the historic scale of it all, the reconstruction can be no less arresting. There seems an expectation, since the rights of the Greenwald film have been picked up by Sony with the producers of the recent James Bond films in tow, that this film version will be a breathless spy scramble. But here the cause and motive of the entire plot hinges on the moral stature of its protagonist. Arriving at the gestalt of this character becomes crucial in etching his personality for the screen; a personality that continues to be as mysterious and intriguing as it is stupefying. The Greenwald book offers bits of the Snowden mystique which, pieced together, profile, even if as a bare sketch, an ordinary young man driven to this extraordinary feat by what he saw was happening at his work: “The stuff I saw really began to disturb me. I could watch drones in real time as they surveilled the people they might kill. You could watch entire villages and see what everyone was doing. I watched NSA tracking peoples’ Internet activities as they typed. I became aware of just how invasive U.S. surveillance capabilities had become. I realised the true breadth of this system. And almost nobody knew it was happening.” There is a lot in that submission for the innovative and bold filmmaker to chew on.

The mental makeup of this master whistle-blower is enticingly eclectic. His interests are a odd mix of Greek mythology—Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces figures as a favourite in this scheme of things—and video games where the hero (much like the Campbellian hero) fights and wins against heavy odds. The classical heroic prototype of Campbell, though, travels far away from home and, after numerous self-fulfilling adventures, returns home. The big question mark with Snowden is whether at all he can return to the U.S. to live a free life again. There is also, for a technologist who is as cutting edge modern as they come, the quaint rhetorical strain that brings to mind the language of a Thomas Jefferson or one such helmsman of the American independence movement. Sample this: “Many will malign me for failing to engage in national relativism, to look away from society’s problems towards distant, external evils for which we hold neither authority nor responsibility, but citizenship carries with it a duty to first police one’s own government before seeking to correct others…. When marginalised youths commit minor infractions, we as a society turn a blind eye as they suffer insufferable consequences in the world’s largest prison system, yet when the rich and most powerful telecommunications providers in the country knowingly commit tens of millions of felonies, Congress passes our nation’s first law providing their elite friends with full retroactive immunity—civil and criminal—for crimes that would have merited the longest sentences in history…. I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon, and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed for even an instant.”

Acting on his beliefs

There are several such stretches of rhetoric quoted by Greenwald which border on the ornate but carry home truths we are unprepared to face up to. Walking the talk though is, for Snowden, the litmus test. “The true measurement of a person’s worth”, he believes, “isn’t what they say they believe in, but what they do in defence of those beliefs… If you’re not acting on your beliefs, then they probably aren’t real.” He, for one, did act on his beliefs. And how. The true film on Snowden, to be more than a superficial spy or sleuth runaround, must get to the moral core of the man. Even if it attempts to grasp that essence, it will make a difference. As Greenwald emphasises, what Snowden was most worried about was whether the world would allow the revelations in his leaks to be swept under the carpet and proceed as if they really did not make any difference; of his sacrifice being met by such indifference. That two films are being made on the man is in itself encouraging by way of engaging popular consciousness. But the recent disastrous film on Julian Assange, The Fifth Estate, which did not generate even a blimp on the box office, is a warning on how the medium can obliterate the message. If that happens to Snowden, despite the rich readymade material he provides them, the filmmakers will have none but themselves to blame.

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