Monday, August 17, 2015


Year 7, Day 229 - 8/17/15 - Movie #2,123

BEFORE: The last day of my documentary chain - it's been a week and a half, and I feel like I learned a lot, so maybe I'll do this sort of thing again next year.  Honestly it's a relief to not have to link actors, and to schedule films thematically rather than both thematically AND via shared actors.  I think my linking's going to run out when I hit October anyway, so the pressure will be off then - next year (if I do another Big Year) I can just watch whatever I want, in whatever order I see fit. 

If I'm being honest, the hardest part about watching these docs was coming up with a fair rating - with narrative films, that's quite easy, I just ask myself, "How much did I enjoy this story?" and feel around for a number from 1 to 10.  But with the documentaries, what am I judging?  Am I deciding how I feel about the people being profiled, or the activity that they engage in, or the way in which the information was presented to me, or something else?  I mean, the events depicted in "Grizzly Man" really happened, and I was never meant to "enjoy" them, so my rating scale just isn't equipped to handle these films, I feel.

THE PLOT: A documentarian and a reporter travel to Hong Kong for the first of many meetings with Edward Snowden.

AFTER: Ah, it would appear that I now owe Edward Snowden an apology.  Maybe even lunch the next time he's back in town - er, back in the U.S.  Here I lumped him in with liars, cheaters and crazy nutbags, and he doesn't seem to be anything like that.  The way this film portrays him, he seems more like the guy who works at Geek Squad who's happy to tell you, at length, why your internet password isn't strong enough.  

Here's where I think I went wrong - I tend to avoid real news outlets, except the Sunday NY Daily News, and I read that mostly for the TV listings.  Outside of that, calling that paper "news" is a bit like calling cotton candy food - technically correct, but no nutritional value.  So in the past few years, I've gotten most of my news from Stewart & Colbert, plus Letterman & Ferguson monologues and SNL's "Weekend Update".  By the time the news about Snowden had filtered down to those outlets, there was enough comedy attached that it didn't really qualify any more, and everyone was on to making fun of him living in the Moscow airport for a month.  Details of what he had done to be labelled a fugitive, and why he'd done it, seemed a bit tangential, and I didn't have time to research.  

And somehow in that process, I sort of glossed over the fact that the NSA is listening to every phone conversation we have, and reading every e-mail.  No, no, don't try to tell me that they're only using their search tools to identify potential terrorists, because that's some real "Minority Report" stuff, and we don't want to go down that road of arresting people who MIGHT be up to no good, and stopping them before they do it, which would be punishing people for having not done something yet, and that way lies madness.  

No, I'm talking about the fact that we're apparently living in a world where simply everything we do or say is being logged and recorded (duh, it's called Twitter and Facebook) and preserved and stored by the government.  Oh, sure, it's a complete violation of our personal privacy, but think of the upside - if you can't remember the name of that great hotel you stayed at on vacation last year, and you can't check your e-mail because of an accident with the server, the U.S. government's got you covered.  They've archived all of your old e-mails, just in case of an emergency like that.  Just fill out a Freedom of Information form, submit it at your local post office or DMV, and in just 27 short weeks, someone will contact you to deny everything.  Or, if your job's getting you down and you really need a break, just say the word "terrorist" into your cel phone, and a friendly bunch of G-Men will pull up to your door, and whisk you away to beautiful Guantanamo Bay.  Don't forget your swimsuit, you'll need it during the waterboarding.  

Anyway, back to Snowden, charged with two counts of espionage by the Feds, plus theft of government property for revealing that the NSA had the technical ability to spy on anyone, anywhere without consent, thanks to the Patriot Act and similar legislation.  Now, you may count Snowden as a hero, because the thing he revealed the government was doing was not only illegal, it was something they'd denied doing, again and again.  (Sounds like they took a page from Lance Armstrong's playbook...)  But that doesn't matter - because it turns out that revealing government secrets is STILL against the law, even if the public had a right or a need to know about this, and even if said secrets reveal massive malfeasance or impropriety.  Most people don't realize this about the Espionage Act, but way down the bottom of one of the riders, in a footnote, it clearly states that if someone being charged with espionage tries to defend themselves in court, they'll automatically lose.

I think the prior administration had already determined that most Americans were willing to give up some (SOME, not all...) of their privacy in exchange for better national security - but why is it an either/or proposition?  Why can't we have both national security AND personal privacy?  Because we're living in the internet age, that's why, so if you want to keep the ability to Google whatever you want (and you know you do, you sick bastards...) then maybe you've got to extend that same right to the federal government.  Only when they say they're going to "Google" you, it means they can run a check on your credit card and your subway transit card and your Kindle to see where you went last Thursday and whether your trip to the hardware store could have allowed you to purchase the materials to build a pipe bomb, which is just what we'd expect from someone who's reading "Catcher in the Rye", isn't it?  

Take Snowden, for example - just by looking him up on Wikipedia, I can learn that he lived in Hawaii, had a basic understanding of Mandarin Chinese, got a Master's degree from the University of Liverpool, worked for an animé company and studied "ethical hacking" in India.  See?  Definitely a commie hipster.  And then he was disappointed when Obama seemed to continue the hacking/spying policies, or at least didn't discontinue or discredit them - supposedly Obama had already ordered an investigation into whether the NSA was spying on regular Americans, or so he said.  Isn't that the kind of thing that people say, though, to disassociate themselves from actions that they know are wrong?  

And, there, finally I've got my connection to this week's Asshole Parade, only the Asshole in question is not Snowden, it's the NSA.  (Hope you're listening, guys!)  They claimed on June 27, 2013, that their surveillance on everyday Americans was quite necessary, and had in fact prevented 54 terrorist events from occuring.  Hmm, not bad, NSA, you could almost make a case for spying on everyone - but then on July 31 they said, "Did we say 54?  Sorry, we meant to say zero.  And that the surveillance was "close to vital" in identifying four men in San Diego who were trying to funnel money to Al Qaeda - a whopping $9,000 worth."  That's it, boys, kick 'em where it hurts.  Billions of American taxpayer dollars spent on spying on those same Americans to keep $9,000 out of the terrorists' pockets.  

Conspiracy theories are everywhere, if you know where to look for them.  Right now, I'm waiting for the fact that Bill Clinton encouraged Donald Trump to run for President to be revealed as one big Trump/Hillary conspiracy - because all Trump has to do is stay in the race long enough to not allow any of the other candidates to gain a loyal following, or run as a third party candidate to siphon off 4 or 5% of Rand Paul's (or Chris Christie's, or Lindsey Graham's, or Carly Fiorino's) votes, and then it's hello, Madame President.  Why isn't THAT bothering anyone yet?  

But this film is another case where a director had no choice but to make themselves part of the story, like Herzog had no other way to present the information seen in "Grizzly Man", but to introduce it with his own voiceover.  Director Laura Poitras faced a similar dilemma, and had to explain why a lot of the film takes place inside various hotels in different countries, and are really just people talking about what's taking place elsewhere.  She used several e-mails she got from Snowden to serve as a background for these meetings, but honestly, the only thing more boring than hearing someone talk about what we're about to see in a documentary is watching them type about it. 

Still, this won the 2014 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature - which leads me to wonder what the competition was.  "Finding Vivian Maier"?  "Last Days in Vietnam"?  "The Salt of the Earth"?  OK, now that makes sense - this category is a real snooze-fest, and I'd rather watch something about a current internet scandal than another film about Vietnam, or something depressing about starving people.  Still, I think Oscar voters might have a problem similar to mine - are they rewarding a film as "Best Documentary" because they think it has an important subject matter, or because they agree with its approach, or something else entirely?

Starring Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill

RATING: 4 out of 10 requests for asylum

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