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Surveillance in a pornographic world: “Snowden” and Westerners’ contradictory relationship with privacy

Snowden movie poster

Dir. Oliver Stone
Screenwritten by Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson
Open Road Films
R, 134 minutes, 2016

reviewed September 18, 2016

What can one say about this movie that is a little different from what many will say.

“Snowden” reminded me of a remark alleged feminist Germaine Greer made in Sex and Destiny, an overall-good book still relevant to struggles referring to religious and gender culture of Muslims and other groups mostly exploited and repressed by the United States. This was decades before Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, and five years before the Web. This was ten years before commercial webcams, some fifteen years before camera phones, and a few years before a large number of people were distributing amateur pornography photos through digital networks and bulletin boards. In the midst of a much larger discussion, what Greer wrote was something to the effect that Westerners fiercely defended privacy rights, at least their own, and this coincided with immodesty or the loss of a concept of modesty, and with an accompanying prying or arrogant dissection of other people’s sexual culture and behavior. In “Snowden,” spies access webcams and infringe on people’s bodily privacy, but computers have come with cameras for various reasons in the first place.

Watching “Snowden,” i also thought of “Breach” (2007), which portrays former FBI agent and computer expert Robert Hanssen, who spied for the Soviet Union, as making homemade sex tapes and sharing eir and eir spouse’s sex life with others. Westerners, including Western Christians, generally are exhibitionist and voyeuristic in various ways and to varying degrees. They have no problem making and even sharing pornography of themselves in many cases. There are many forms less obvious than a hardcore videotape. They often flamboyantly flaunt their heterosexual Don Juanism in public. But they are outraged by even the slightest infringement of their own privacy. To even touch on this concurrence risks the ire of both pseudo-feminists and frat boys worried about controlling Westerners’ sexuality as if Westerners haven’t been dominating the oppressed and disrupting their lives for centuries. And, Westerners tend to choose activities in which sexual pleasure is sought for its own sake and in which their own enjoyment is central relative to the needs/desires of their partner or family and community, despite claims of partners’ experiencing the same sex equally. These choices increasingly involve using their image – revealing photos, though perhaps not too revealing at first – and public, widespread disclosure of persynal details to both attract and manage/manipulate scrutiny of themselves by strangers and acquaintances.

The Tinder culture is also a culture in which the iCloud leaks and “the Snappening” were possible. The biggest casualties of this culture and the hacks actually include non-celebrities and children. There are also those who can’t afford to imitate Westerners but are nonetheless dominated by them through globalized systems of pornography and gender, systems in which pornography tends to favor people in the First World as both subjects and consumers/purveyors of pornography. Many of those in countries with a strong concept of privacy are increasingly and ironically forced to give up their privacy or integrity by maintaining high activity on social networking platforms – and participating in a culture that has made privacy an aspect of carefully curating one’s image – or risk social and economic exclusion. In doing so, they can end up caught up in dragnets and spying. “Snowden” accurately depicts CIA spying as victimizing children, not just in drone strikes, but in the course of asset recruiting. How this reviewer knows that without needing to cite any source, i leave to the reader’s imagination. Several decades ago there wasn’t Facebook or the Web. There were, however, social networks not based or represented digitally in computers. What a shocker.

In “Snowden,” Edward Snowden is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who happens to star in the 2013 movie “Don Jon,” widely released a few months after Snowden gave thousands of NSA documents to journalists. Incidentally, Gordon-Levitt benefits from what ey does sexually on the screen in “Don Jon,” “Snowden,” and other movies, and also benefits from gossip about eir real love life, but had a secret wedding the privacy of which was itself remarkable. Notice there aren’t many movies showing Muslims having sex during NATO bombings assisted by liberals in u.$. intelligence agencies and the State Department. Itself pornographic, “Don Jon” is about Internet pornography and an individual who tries and fails to conceal pornography use from an intimate partner whose own body ey considers ideal and who knows how to find browsing history. Privacy sensitivity coupled with developments in pornography in myriad forms in the West even before the 1960s: it is an irony that seems easy to understand in retrospect. Or it appears easy to understand in terms of the social and behavioral context of privacy despite the cultural prominence of pseudo-psychoanalytic ideas about “repression” that seemingly would make privacy in some areas less necessary. It’s not just that, with use of Internet devices with cameras and sites/apps like Facebook, there is more information for spies, hackers and others to take remotely. As Lindsay Mills’ curiously black & white photography of boyfriend Snowden suggests, social media culture is a culture that enables additional opportunities for intelligence collection. But in the social media era, in addition to ongoing general capitalism-related reasons for pornography and privacy rights related to private property, there may be new re-presentations of an underlying idea about “agency” and needing to express oneself and control one’s appearance, in a context of privilege and competition with others. That may underlie some of the advertising-related concern about privacy: illusory creativity and individuality are threatened by targeted advertising. The rise of commonplace continuous broadcasting of large amounts of persynal information for networking and promotion purposes has coincided with an increasing need to suppress contradicting appearances whether the information is present in electronic devices and networks or not. Apart from protecting account login details and aside from health conditions that are sometimes related to dating or avoiding embarrassment or discrimination within a certain culture, much use of the privacy features built into Web browsers these days is related to pornography, relationships unlikely to turn into long-term marriages, and maintaining individual reputation in an environment of narcissistic self-promotion and probing of others.

Retired wrestler Terry Bollea a.k.a. Hulk Hogan won a lawsuit this year for a privacy violation involving both pornography and adultery, after bragging inaccurately in some cases about eir sex life and penis size in public as commentators have said. Some, including liberal pseudo-feminists otherwise defending bodily integrity to the hilt, appear to suggest the public has a right to know the true length of Bollea’s, or Donald Trump’s or former presidential candidate Marco Rubio’s, penis even if it would necessarily involve spying or an intrusion – an example of how pornographic culture can weaken supposed liberal-democratic norms in the united $tates and at the same time result in increased Liberal (and liberal) gender-privileged concern about privacy and sex. They would never tolerate any unpermitted revelation about their own anatomy unless it ended up helping them economically or socially, so there is also sympathy for Bollea. Of course, after the sex life of both Bill and Hillary Clinton and serious allegations against Bill were publicized so extensively and actually became a selling point for many liberals and other amerikans, it seemingly became necessary to raise the topic of one’s own genitals as a presidential candidate; non-political celebrities similarly compete with other celebrities. The Gawker sex video lawsuit itself was pornographically interesting because it involved sexual privacy and the sex life of a celebrity. It didn’t so much involve financial privacy, for example, except maybe Hogan’s financial privacy with respect to bankroller Peter Thiel, or Nick Denton’s finances; although, some privacy concerns and legal cases wouldn’t exist if capitalism didn’t exist.

That is how many Americans who aren’t elites, spies, capitalists, health professionals, people targeted by stalkers, activists, etc., understand privacy and spying issues – sexually or romantically – or that is how the topics become exciting for many. As if to prove this, a CIA target’s vulnerability involves a relative and the relative’s Facebook activity and love life in the movie. Just reading others’ private messages feels depraved or violating. Snowden emself is seen as using a dating website and later shown having sex with eir girlfriend played by Shailene Woodley – in a moderately (by current Western standards for movies) pornographic scene that along with language made the movie have an “R” rating unnecessarily. Snowden worries about webcam hacking after coming across the issue at work.(1) At one point, Snowden puts things this way: everyone has something to hide. To make the point, Snowden talks about Lindsay Mills’ continuing use of the dating site they met on, and what that might look like to Snowden though Mills may not have done anything wrong. In the movie, Mills says ey was continuing to visit the dating site to experience others’ lives vicariously while Snowden was absent – an interesting comment about how reading romance novels and watching soap operas have been replaced with a kind of voyeurism involving real people in real time with compromised privacy voluntary and potentially involuntary. Mills takes artistic pictures of emself Snowden perceives as pornographic or thinks are potentially interesting to spies/hackers, in addition to photos of Snowden. Mills is known for pole-dancing among other things appearing in both the movie and major newspapers for example, with some people who knew Mills having expressed surprise about the diversity of Mills’ work. It was unknown to them.

To a great extent, unsurprisingly, “Snowden” is about Snowden as a persyn, the individual. It is a reflection of pornographic interest in Snowden and eir acrobat partner, and also that Snowden gave up – and maybe had to give up – both anonymity and privacy by doing what ey did. Journalists wanted to know more about Snowden’s background and biography even after Snowden showed the goods and multiple identity documents. It as though the story about mass surveillance couldn’t have been told without Snowden’s biography and Lindsay Mills’ pole work. Although, Snowden and Mills are obviously in a difficult situation still and could use all the help they can get.

“Snowden” is thus self-centered or indulgent for its Western viewers, but thankfully the movie isn’t just about amerikans being victims of spying. Snowden in the non-movie world has made patriotic statements since leaking the classified information, but in the movie Snowden observes that developments in surveillance after 9/11 were more about maintaining U.$. political and economic global dominance than about fighting terrorism. Cyberwarfare is just another type of warfare and may predominate in wars; cyber espionage is just another form of spying. The movie is somewhat vague about the non-sexual things amerikans really have to hide and the consequences of revealing them except to suggest relationship strife and hurt feelings. Also, the movie addresses the threat posed by the possibility of a future bad government using pieces of information obtained by privacy infringements – as if the u.$. government already being bad for the world were maybe less important. However, the movie refers to many specific things and present injuries in regard to spying on non-amerikans. It shows questionable drone attacks facilitated by spying, and alcohol-related attacks on people, not involved in terrorism, who are connected to Saudi finances by unscrupulous CIA officers seeking career advancement, for example.

One justification for privacy and everyone’s using privacy techniques is that it protects a minority who are activists who really do have more to hide than the average persyn, not that mass surveillance oppresses a majority of amerikans. This idea doesn’t appear in “Snowden” so much, as far as this reviewer can remember. Another issue discussed in the media recently, in a warmongering way, is that hackers could get into u.$. systems and acquire information produced in the united $tates’ huge cyberwarfare and cyber spying operations. Concern about keeping NSA-collected information out of the hands of foreign hackers could lead to warmongering or chauvinism against Russia, China, Iran, and Korea.

In the movie, Snowden goes from being conservative to being more liberal and ended up disappointed by Obama while working for the u.$. government. The fact that liberal Democrat fans of Obama are still in the CIA and the NSA in 2016 and enthusiastic about their work would come as a surprise to some so “Snowden” may not help much in this respect. However, while concerned about surveillance programs and their legality, Snowden is shown repeatedly passing polygraph tests during which Snowden is asked if ey thinks the united $tates is the greatest country on the planet. The movie thus suggests it is possible for careerists and others who are not particularly patriotic, and people who are highly critical of the u.$. government, leadership or society, to answer such questions honestly and affirmatively. Those who claim to be opposing corruption, racism, apartheid, colonialism, or imperialism, or the use of Constitutionally problematic mass surveillance to preserve u.$. dominance, may still think the united $tates is the greatest country on the earth or support u.$. dominance, complicating interactions with them in struggles against oppression and complicating notions of upsurge in the united $nakes.

There are hundreds of thousands of amerikans with a Top Secret clearance, a little less than 1% of u.$. adults. The number of amerikans with security clearances in general is more than the number of people employed in some of the largest occupations in the united $tates.(2) And since amerikans are generally exploiters of people outside the extremely parasitic united $nakes, there are more people with security clearances than proletarian u.$. citizens in that country. In addition, there are many others in the private and public sectors – various amerikans who think they are serving the amerikan people and have illusions about them, but who think of themselves as so special as deserving or needing to be above the rules – with access to persynal information not available to the public. There may be relatively few people writing prolifically for public consumption who have authorized access to top-secret information. Among people in general, there is too much interest in questions of individuals and biography so many concern themselves with. However, both the CIA and opponents of the CIA make use of publicly available sources of unclassified information so it could seem some writers are doing something similar to what some diplomatic or secret service analysts do. And on the other hand, a variety of radical and non-radical journalists do work not involving classified information or analysis, that is in contradiction with u.$. influence operations. At the same time, a newspaper can cover important matters known to varying degrees and the response from amerikans focused on more-domestic issues is to yawn and change the channel, or swipe left/right. In other words, the amerikan public often does not respond in a helpful way to important things that are obvious or hidden in plain sight and yet is supposed to respond in a good way to spectacular revelations of surveillance that many who weren’t naive already knew or made reasonable assumptions about in broad terms years before the Snowden leaks. That is not to mention all of the wiretapping, search and surveillance disclosures and provisions before 2013.

“Snowden” doesn’t address many of the things, occurring after Snowden’s revelations, that are likely/mostly not helpful to amerika’s enemies. Globally and in the united $tates, the results have included legalizing or explicitly authorizing the surveillance revealed by Snowden, tolerating known and continuing surveillance programs, public attempts to justify revealed practices, rhetoric about oversight, review, restraint, restrictions etc. without actually taking action or eliminating programs, making post-9/11 heightened surveillance more palatable by making some minor changes, legitimizing various kinds of spying on other countries’ citizens by raising distinctions involving citizenship and mass and so-called targeted surveillance, knowledge of surveillance disclosures coinciding with a continuing favorable view of the united $tates and a belief that the u.$. government oppresses amerikans (most of whom are actually exploiters and oppressors with complicity),(3) making the consequences of surveillance and spying that took place before September 2001 seem less important, probably hacking other countries’ databases and systems to get some of the same information about one’s country’s citizens, and shady dealings with hackers and data brokers with even less formal structure or supervision.

This reviewer found “Snowden” entertaining. It could have been entertaining as a purely fictional movie and was more entertaining than informative for this reviewer. It is unclear what the R-rated movie really has to offer for adults who have read more than a couple articles about Snowden and the leaks. Detailed discussion of Snowden and the leaks has been in mainstream media for three years now. Movies are often used to build people up pornographically, and in this case Snowden is an amerikan some call a hero. In various contexts, the story of Australian Julian Assange is preferable to Snowden’s. Unfortunately, what Assange did with Chelsea Manning and U.S. State Department and Defense Department information was less clearly about protecting Fourth Amendment rights of amerikans, and so Assange faces an ongoing amerikan-British-Swedish plot involving unfavorably pornographic sex allegations and more media opposition than Snowden. The Guardian and the Washington Post have some complicity in this as does the New York Times. ◊

• “Beyond patriotism: “Jason Bourne,” the individual, and service to u.$. imperialism,” 2016 August.
• “Was Monicagate a Christian fascist power grab or pornography?” 2006 January 17.

1. “FBI director says tape is the best way to defeat webcam hacks,” 2016 September 15.
2. “5.1 million Americans have security clearances. That’s more than the entire population of Norway.” 2014 March 24.
“Employment for the largest occupations in the United States, May 2015,” 2016 March 30.
3. “Global opposition to U.S. surveillance and drones, but limited harm to America’s image,” 2014 July 14.

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