Edward Snowden – hero of our time?
Robert Henderson asks some awkward questions
Director: Laura Poitras
Running time: 114 minutes
This documentary about state surveillance revolves around Edward Snowden as interviewee and the journalists Glen Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill as interviewers. The interviews were primarily conducted in Hong Kong to where Snowden fled before moving to Russia.
As a man who has been much in the news since June 2013 but little seen and heard, it is naturally intriguing to see what Snowden is made of when interviewed at length with a further enticement to watch being the possibility that he might reveal some dramatic new details of state misbehaviour. Consequently, it might be thought the film would contain plenty to interest and alarm anyone worried about the imbalance between the power of the state and civil liberties. Sad to say there is little to excite the viewer because Snowden comes across as a distinctly colourless personality and there are no startling important new revelations. Worse, there is something essential missing: nowhere is there any serious attempt to test either the veracity of the information Snowden made public or his declared motivation.
Whenever someone whistle blows on a state apparatus those receiving the information are presented with what might be called the “double agent” problem. Is the whistle-blower what he seems? Is he telling the simple truth or is he working to his own or another’s agenda? Snowden could logically be in any one of these hypothetical situations:
- He is telling the truth about the information he provides and his motives.
- He is acting voluntarily as a covert agent of the US state.
- He is acting voluntarily as an agent of a foreign state.
- He is acting voluntarily on behalf of a non-state actor.
- He is acting under duress from any of the actors in 2-4.
Possibilities 2-5 went unexplored. They did not even ask Snowden how he was paying his way since his flight. (Always ask about the money. I once badly threw David Shayler at a public meeting simply by asking how he was funding his life). That left only possibility 1, that Snowden was simply telling the truth. However, the film failed even there. The two interviewers simply asked Snowden questions and accepted his answers at face value.
How plausible is Snowden as the selfless idealist he portrays himself as? In the film he appears to be surprisingly little troubled by his predicament. This could be reasonably interpreted as someone who had his present position worked out in advance of his whistle blowing. All the shuffling about in Hong Kong before going to Moscow could have just been to substantiate his claim that he was acting of his own volition or, less probably, perhaps China had agreed to give him sanctuary and then changed their minds. Not convinced, then ask yourself how likely it is that anyone would have been willing to blow the gaffe on US state secrets without having the assurance that afterwards he would be in a place safe from the US authorities? After all, if Snowden is ever brought to trial in the US it would be more or less certain that he would get a massive prison sentence and, in theory at least, he might be executed for treason.
Then there is Lindsay Mills, the partner Snowden ostensibly left behind without explanation. She has joined him in Moscow. When Snowden speaks in the film of his decision to leave Mills without explanation, he tells the story with an absence of animation that would not have disgraced a marble statue. All very odd unless the story that he left her in the dark was simply a blind to both protect her and provide a veil of confusion as to his whereabouts immediately after the initial release of information.
As for Mills she made a number of entries to a blog she ran after Snowden’s flight to Hong Kong. Here’s an example: “As I type this on my tear-streaked keyboard I’m reflecting on all the faces that have graced my path. The ones I laughed with. The ones I’ve held. The one I’ve grown to love the most. And the ones I never got to bid adieu.” Would someone who is supposedly seriously traumatised produce such a studied attempt at what she doubtless sees as “fine writing”? Anyone care to bet that she was not in on the plot all along?
Snowden also engages onscreen in some very unconvincing bouts of paranoia such as covering his head with a cloth in the manner of an old time photographer to avoid a password he is putting in to his computer being read. He also reacts in an exaggerated way at a fire alarm going off repeatedly, unplugging a phone that keeps ringing on the grounds that the room could be bugged through the phone line. Well, it could be but so what? Provided Snowden only said what he was willing to have included in the film it would not matter if his conversations with the documentary makers were bugged. It all seemed very contrived and could plausibly be interpreted as Snowden self-consciously and ineptly acting out what he imagines to be the way someone in his position would behave.
Apart from the stark failure to press Snowden adequately, the questioning of Greenwald and MacAskill’s was woefully inept. Neither had any idea of how to build a line of questioning or how to play a witness. For example, one of the most difficult disciplines an investigator has to master is to allow the person being questioned to do as much of the talking as possible without being prompted. That necessitates being patient and tolerating long periods of silence when the person being questioned does not reply to a question quickly. Those who have seen the film American Hustle will remember the Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper characters. The Bale character understands the art of taking your time, letting a mark come to you rather than you going to them. Cooper’s character is forever messing up Bale’s plans by rushing in and pressing matters. Obviously in a documentary you cannot allow silence to continue for very long, but even allowing a minute’s silence can be very revealing of a person who is failing to answer. Irritatingly, Greenwald would not let Snowden stew in silence for even a moment.
Greenwald’s other major shortcoming is that he loves the sound of his own voice far too much and has an irritating habit of delivering platitudes in a manner that suggests he is offering ideas of the greatest profundity. MacAskill was palpably nervous and routinely asked innocuous questions and, after they were asked, seemed pathetically relieved that he had put a question, any question.
Apart from the interview with Snowden, there was little of interest to anyone who is seriously concerned about state surveillance because it was all widely known material bar one item. This was a recording of a remarkable court hearing in the USA which AT&T phone customers took action against the state over unwarranted surveillance which showed the US government lawyer arguing in effect that the case court had no jurisdiction over the matter and being soundly slapped down by one of the judges.
Is the film worth seeing? Probably only as a documentation of Snowden’s personality. It reveals nothing new about the extent of the misbehaviour the US state or properly examined why and how Snowden did what he did. Nor would the film be likely to educate someone who was ignorant of the subject, because the details of what the US government had been up to were offered in too piecemeal a fashion for a coherent idea of what had happened to emerge for someone starting from scratch.
ROBERT HENDERSON is QR’s film critic