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Film Review: Children of Men

Children of Men (2006; Directed by Alfonso Cuarón)

Woe betide the work of art that is referred to as “prophetic”. The application of the term may be intended as an indicator of praise, an appreciation of a creator’s imaginative prescience in galvanizing in an aesthetic text certain social, political, or technological conditions that were either not present or present in less-developed or even embryonic form when the text was created. But there’s also a taint to prophecy, a Nostradamusian sense of interpretive vagueness and conspiratorial fervour that swamps rational evaluation. The term is also inherently theistic, a sop to faith and fate yoked to the runaway cart of predestination. To label art “prophetic” is to cage its meaning and implications in the merely predictive, in ephemeral daydreams (or daynightmares). Great art is not a crystal ball but a mirror; perhaps a murky one presenting the convincing illusion of half-glimpsed, magical depths, but always ultimately reflective. Art does not predict the future, it imagines it by extrapolating the present. Sometimes, it even creates it.

This is all being laid down as a preface to the unnerving, discomfiting realization that, a decade after its release, Alfonso Cuarón’s bleak, draining masterpiece Children of Men more closely resembles our current sociopolitical reality than even the film itself imagined. Chronologically halfway to its envisioned situation in 2027, our world’s apparent sliding conditions seem more than halfway to the ones Cuarón indelibly depicts in his film about a dystopian near-future of a sterile human race unable to produce offspring. This biological and psychological death sentence results in mass anxiety and despair, and leads to social and governmental collapse, destructive conflict, desperate rebellion, knee-jerk authoritarianism, and rampantly cruel xenophobic oppression.

Amidst the worldwide chaos, a greyscale Fortress Britain alone retains a functioning government, but only by becoming a police state that has banned all immigration and detains thousands of foreign refugees in nightmarish ghetto-camps marked by brutal reprisals and extreme deprivation. One can well imagine the onerous former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, a far-right bootlick of Donald Trump whose scrubbed-up anti-immigrant sentiment was the petrol for the rusty runaway jalopy that is Brexit, taking in a late showing of the film and masturbating furiously to these scenes, perspiration and semen and a spilt Diet Coke pooling together around his feet. He would likely imagine himself to be one of the privileged wealthy few dwelling in London’s royal West End, which fences off the desperate rabble and allows the rich to maintain their charmed lifestyles while preserving exotic wildlife in Hyde Park and the world’s surviving cultural patrimony in Battersea Power Station, dubbed the Ark of the Arts.

Children of Men clings to a kernel of hope among the grimness and extreme inequality, a kernel that also drives its nearly relentless escape plot. Scruffy, cynical civil servant Theo Faron (Clive Owen at the fleeting peak of his brief leading-man window) is snatched up by the Fishes, the radical pro-immigrant activist cronies of his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), who task him with obtaining transit papers for a young refugee woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey). They intend to use these papers to smuggle her out of the country to a half-mythical international research group called the Human Project, because, miraculously, Kee is pregnant. Such a momentous development in a world where no child has been born for nearly two decades (the youngest human living, a media celebrity called Baby Diego, is reported dead in the film’s opening scenes, sparking mass mourning) becomes the target for competing agendas, and Theo must evade the fascistic authorities, the menacing terrorist Fishes (Chiwetel Ejiofor and a dreadlocked Charlie Hunnam play the primary figures in this group), and all manner of collateral dangers to safeguard this fragile ray of hope for humanity.

Owen, Moore, and the others give earnest and committed performances, with occasional tension-releasing humour provided by Michael Caine as a long-haired, pot-smoking, flatulent former political cartoonist with whom Theo and Kee hide out, as well as Scottish actor Peter Mullan as a sarcastic, self-serving refugee camp guard who aids them until he discovers Kee’s explosive secret. But Children of Men is auteur cinema par excellence, with Cuarón’s masterly control of the images before his camera directing a compelling motion tapestry of mood, emotion, and meaning. The astounding production design, by Jim Clay, Geoffrey Kirkland, and Jennifer Williams, is the fabric of this tapestry and takes much of the weight of imparting key information and feelings, but Cuarón’s use of his camera dominates the picture.

Analyses of Cuarón’s technical prowess often note how its display heightens and deepens the hermeneutics of the film. Its absorbing long takes, from the stunning, axis-shifting car attack sequence to Theo’s harrowing movements through the refugee prison camp at Bexhill, are not simple showboating but essential to the construction of Children of Men‘s hybrid tone of dystopian summonings and photojournalistic invocations of current-affairs traumas, with resonant reference points in art and cultural history (Picasso’s Guernica, Michelangelo’s La Pieta, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Banksy, George Orwell, and Pink Floyd are all visually referenced, overtly or otherwise). Meanwhile, the contrast of foreground and background images, animated by Cuarón’s roving, curious camera pulling away from the central protagonist-focused action to register side tableaux of indelible suffering, distills some fundamental truth about our tenuous post-capitalist social order, poised between self-involved consumerism and the tragic widespread oppression and engineered deprivation that puts the lie to that order’s airbrushed dreams (and, viewed from a more radical political point of view, provides the raw fuel for them).

Children of Men‘s sophisticated and memorable dialogue with this mixed inheritance of images and their ambivalent associations has only gained relevance and shades of meaning in our contemporary reality. Indeed, the scenes of turmoil from across a Europe whose economically-driven open-border policies have been challenged by the surging influx of refugees from the Syrian civil war can sometimes seem patterned after the immigrant concentration cages and ghettos in Children of Men. Xenophobic angst against the perceived foreign invader motivated the victorious Leave faction of the momentous Brexit referendum, inching the UK worryingly closer to the state of Cuarón dystopian imagination.

This is not to say, however, that Alfonso Cuarón “predicted” elements of our current sociopolitical reality in Children of Men. In 2006, this was a film documenting current conditions as much as it was a warning about potential future problems stemming from them, and it remains so in 2016. In this, Children of Men conforms to the tradition of dystopian science fiction, like Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World before it. But where those seminal examples of the genre located the genesis of the dystopian condition in the imposition of oppressive top-down controls by a powerful elite, in Children of Men such authoritarian strokes are reactions to a momentous shift in human reality that reorders the psychological basis of the existing sociopolitical order.

The mass impotence and infertility of the human race in Children of Men is a literal condition that allows access to any numbers of powerful metaphorical conclusions about the world that we have built for ourselves. But that mass impotence and infertility is also a metaphor for the impotence that normal citizens, especially the most deprived among them, feel in the face of post-capitalism’s dread inevitability and tantalizing built-in scarcity. The core anxiety in the future summoned by Cuarón in Children of Men is no less than the end of the future; its formless fear is not directed at the expected end of the human race and its rich civilizations, but at the dispelling of the comforting myth of progress, the extinguishing of that warm glow that rises inside of us when we tell ourselves that no matter the hardships before us, things will be better, one day. Like many of its images, burned into the viewer’s memory like rich graffiti on a bare wall, it is this resonant feeling that lingers on after Children of Men is over. But is a memorable film like this ever over? Or is it instead carried with us at all times, in any age, a mirror on ourselves that reminds us of the dangers of despair as well as the ambivalent value of the heady elixir of hope? Don’t call Children of Men prophetic. It’s far too great for that.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Get Out

Get Out (2017; Directed by Jordan Peele)

A surprise box office smash and undeniable film-of-the-moment, Get Out is a consistently unsettling horror-thriller genre piece whose creepy central concept likewise functions as a resonant metaphor for anti-black racism in America. Written and directed by debutant auteur Jordan Peele (one half of the acclaimed sketch comedy duo Key & Peele), it’s masterfully poised and finely calibrated, the work of an assured filmmaker whose control of narrative, tone, tension, and visuals conveys his desired ideas and emotions with impressive effectiveness. Get Out works on its audience as a tense and troubling (though not often really frightening, in pure jump-scare horror terms) isolated imagined scenario but also subtly, incrementally imparts how tense and troubling (and often frightening) the experience of living as an African-American can be, in any scenario.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) has been dating Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) for a few months, and with their relationship having reached the meeting-the-parents phase, she invites him to the family’s isolated country home for the weekend. Chris is concerned that Rose’s parents aren’t aware that he’s black, and, being white like their daughter, might not approve of him. Chris’ unease with the situation is fed by a phone chat with his buddy Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who spins fanciful yarns about all the potential dangers lying in wait for a black man in a white person’s milieu (perhaps not so fanciful, given the chilling film-opening vignette of a black man being ambushed and kidnapped while strolling lost through an affluent suburb). That unease increases when a vehicular collision with a deer activates Chris’ childhood traumas, and builds to an eerie crescendo through their visit.

Despite an initially warm welcome to Casa Armitage, discomfort gradually consumes the observant Chris (he’s a photographer by profession, a highly conscious and symbolically-reflective choice by Peele). Awkward racial assumptions and behaviours both small and inadvertent as well as more major begin to add up. Rose’s neurosurgeon dad Dean (Bradley Whitford) persistently calls Chris “My man”, points out his family connection to Jesse Owens’ showing-up of Hitler’s master-race posturing at the 1936 Olympics, and tells him he would have voted for Barack Obama a third time if he could have (as Rose predicted he would with a precision that wrings out a laugh but may suggest something more). Rose’s vaguely-threatening med-student brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) is more inappropriate, bragging of his jujitsu training and telling Chris that with his “genetic makeup” he could be a formidable MMA fighter. Rose’s psychiatrist mother Missy (Catherine Keener) doesn’t touch on anything racially-charged, but she does offer to hypnotize Chris in order to cure him of his smoking habit, and then does so on the night of his arrival, without his consent.

Outside of the Armitages themselves, Chris is also weirded out by their African-American servants, Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel), who speak and behave in a very odd, old-fashioned (and, to Chris’ mind, non-black) manner. His paranoia waxing, a series of encounters at a garden party attended almost entirely by older, wealthy white people (friends of the dearly departed Grandpa Armitage, it’s claimed), who are inordinately interested in the colour of his skin and his physical attributes, finally drives Chris to insist on leaving. But it may be too late for him to extricate himself from a situation that will become far more sinister than a mere series of embarrassing social expressions of half-unconscious racial prejudice.

It’s impossible to properly discuss Peele’s ingenious embedding of the persisting fundamentals of African-American exploitation by the white supremacist order in his core horror concept without completely spoiling it. Consider yourself forewarned. But Get Out is so unsettling and challenging as it moves towards its expected twist because it deploys that twist’s active, leading clues alongside the hints of racism that Chris keenly feels throughout the awkward weekend retreat. Peele’s writing and direction and Kaluuya’s performance are all so keenly attuned to even the most minor of slights that this heightened attention disguised the film’s sleights (of hand). As Peele makes his audience, black but especially white, increasingly uncomfortable with a million pinpricks of racial prejudice, he also wratchets up the tension derived from the growing awareness that Chris may be in real danger of a worse fate than social mortification.

That fate, revealed following Peele’s exquisite depiction of the strained interpersonal interactions of those on both sides of the American racial divide, is a powerful punch of a metaphor for the enduring agony of African-Americans’ exploitation and marginalization by the nation’s generational white elites. As is revealed to a bound Chris by a television screen in an eeriely symmetrical wood-panelled basement den, the Armitages have maintained a secret family medical “process” for years known as Coagula, which allows privileged but aging whites to cheat death by transplanting their brains and therefore their consciousnesses into the captive host bodies of young black men (and occasionally women) chosen specifically for their physical prowess and robust health. The whole Armitage clan collaborates in these abductions: Rose acts as the attractive honeypot to lure them in, Missy hypnotizes them in order to control them with Jeremy ready to provide stiffer physical compulsion if required, and Dean swaps the white brain into the black body. The strange dinner party? A twisted form of auction, the attendees’ bizarre, racist assessments of Chris revealed to be simple, blunt probings of his potential as host-body merchandise.

Behind Get Out‘s body-horror-lite conceit lies a very clear message from Peele about African-Americans’ tragic history of corporeal oppression. Brought against their will to the Western Hemisphere to work for nothing to make white men piles of money, their bodies reduced to commodities no different than (and sometimes less valued than) livestock, furniture, or any other property, Africans in America were always defined above all in physical terms by their white masters, terrorizers, bosses, and superiors in privilege and wealth. Exploitation of the black body (once achieved in cotton fields, now carried on in high-gloss sporting arenas and low-wage jobs alike) has subsisted alongside its destruction: by the overseer’s whip, the lynch mob’s rope, the state trooper’s fire hoses and dogs, the city cop’s service weapon, by drugs, gun, and prison. For African-Americans, body horror is not a mere queasy, tittilating cinematic escape. It is a crushing daily reality, a discouraging way of life. Peele even has a zeitgeist-ready term for the space of dispiriting hopelessness this plight engenders: the sunken place, Missy’s name for the starfield-like empty space that Chris’ consciousness is banished to when she hypnotizes him. The concept of Coagula contains all of this and more, a disturbing genre-movie fantasy built out of a more disturbing real-world truth.

Get Out is flush with its own ideas and position-takings of race in America, but it isn’t difficult to notice that it’s a darkly inverted homage of sorts to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the seminal 1967 progressive Hollywood drama about an affluent young woman bringing her African-American boyfriend home to meet her liberal but still stubbornly bigoted parents. Whitford’s thick-rimmed black spectacles and white hair suggests that film’s patriarch Spencer Tracy, certainly. Williams, meanwhile, is the daughter of news anchor Brian Williams, a link to White America’s cultural elite that makes her casting seem like another peeled-back layer of the larger joke (Whitford, a veteran of neoliberal television monolith The West Wing, and arthouse mainstay Keener seem to be similar chosen for more than merely their thespianic skills). The clean-cut creative-class Chris may contain something of Sidney Poitier’s John Prentice, a best-and-brightest, twice-as-good black professional, but Peele provides him with a crucial link back to African-American culture in the form of his outspoken best friend Rod, a TSA agent who plays amateur detective amusingly in the film’s last act-and-a-half.

Beyond these more superficial intertextual suggestions and self-aware subversions, Get Out repurposes Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner most strongly in terms of the insights and sense of perspective that its scenario grants its audience, which in the case of the half-century-old film was presumed first and foremost to be white. More precisely, although Get Out presents a certain perspective on the African-American experience of racism, unlike Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner it never allows a white audience to feel a surge of comforting, positive fellow-feeling about this opening of vision.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner concludes with Spencer Tracy’s grizzled newspaper publisher Matt Drayton (known professionally for his progressive social concern) reluctantly acknowledging his inborn prejudice and giving his belated blessing to his daughter’s union with Poitier’s Prentice, recognizing with sad resignation that he may not have the time left in a waning life to banish his racial assumptions entirely. Made more poignant by the production reality that this was Tracy’s final role, one that he fought bravely to complete before dying (which he did, 17 days after filming wrapped, as it happened), Matt’s pained realization coupled with his magnanimous acceptance of his daughter’s choice in love made Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner not merely a major ideological focal point of liberal white attitudes towards anti-black racism, but a moving emotional expression of those attitudes as well.

But Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner also carries a legacy of helping to define white racial animus against blacks as a personal foible, a mere fault of social manners and behaviour to be overcome, or at least politely contained and then disavowed. This is how Get Out depicts such racism in its first half, often with nearly-transcendent insightfulness and a sharp satirical eye. But when the pivot comes, it comes hard, and shifts the film’s ideological axis firmly into the more “woke” symbolic space of emphasizing racism in America as structural, institutional, and as emanating powerful, inescapable social conditioning into the cultural spheres of whites and blacks alike. African-American professor Otis Madison, quoted by colleague Cedric Robinson, said that “the purpose of racism is to control the behaviour of white people, not Black people”. Though Madison added with a fatalistic turn that for African-Americans, “guns and tanks are sufficient”, Peele understands the awareness of racism as seeding not merely black-white interactions but discourse within each segregated community as well.

Chris is given a relatively happy ending, despite a stomach-churning tease of his potential arrest for the murder of the Armitages effected during his desperate escape. Although the flashing squad-car lights belong to TSA agent Rod and represent Chris’ rescue, they might just as easily (and, in an earlier, darker cut of the film, in fact did) belong to white police bringing the unjust arm of the law down across his chest, cruelly punishing him for achieving his own release from bondage and mind-slavery. But Chris’ escape, even alongside the reduction of Coagula, offers no comfort. Racism is greater and more terrible than one imagined scenario. Hate wins even in violent defeat, as Rose’s creepy smile as he strangles her in anger makes Chris realize, at the last.

Get Out is a masterful genre exercise that amplifies a vital political message about racism in American and beyond. But it doesn’t tell us that it will all be okay if we all come together (whatever that’s supposed to mean), and it doesn’t flatter us by allowing us to imagine that we can view through the eyes of another. Before he gets out, Chris’ body was to have been the host for the mind of Jim Hudson (the always indispensible Stephen Root), a blind art dealer who admires Chris’ photographs (at least as they are painstakingly described to him by an assistant) and covets the younger man’s “eye”. Quite literally claiming not to “see colour”, Hudson doesn’t get to quite literally see through Chris’ eyes. I would argue that, despite Get Out‘s complex depiction of fraught social racism, we don’t get to really see through Chris’ eyes either. “We” in this case is white people watching the film, always already including myself, whatever dubious claims to laudable progressive attitudes I like to entertain and whose every crack and fissure of doubt this film mercilessly probes and enlarges.

Perhaps African-Americans watching the film can see through the protagonist’s eyes, and maybe Get Out is compelling, resonant, or painful for them in ways that white people, like myself, cannot ever really understand. Perhaps that assumption is another form of prejudice. Fundamentally, we cannot know what another (an other) sees, especially across the tremendous, fantastic wall that is the American racial divide. Get Out doesn’t flatter its audience with the suggestion that such rapprochement, such intimate empathy of perspective, is possible. It opts for stark recognition instead. It’s a form of cold comfort, maybe, but recognizing and embracing that truth, and the truth of racism’s historical atrocities and contemporary conditions alike, does bring us closer to living with it, if never managing to overcome or contain it. Or to escape it.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review – Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America

March 25, 2017 Leave a comment

Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America (2016; Directed by Matthew Ornstein)

Daryl Davis has a simple question that he wants answered: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” The African-American musician, speaker, and activist has been seeking an answer to that question in a person-to-person manner for over 25 years, and Accidental Courtesy is a documentary film depicting the green shoots and the persistent frustrations of his approach.

Davis is nearly 60 years old, and has performed with major musical artists such as Chuck Berry, Bruce Hornsby, Jerry Lee Lewis, and more over his long career. He has also spent much of his offstage time since about 1990 meeting, conversing with, and even befriending dozens of prominent hardcore racist members of the Ku Klux Klan, the reactionary fraternal American white supremacist organizational movement infamous for its hate-group-level rhetoric, protests, and often violence directed against Jews, Catholics, immigrants, non-whites, and, most prominently, African-Americans like Davis. As Davis explains to the filmmakers in interviews, to seminar crowds at speaking engagements, and to sceptical listeners from across the political spectrum, he hopes through honest good-faith discussion, ordinary politeness, and basic acts of kindness to impress his humanity and decency upon men who inherently deny his claim to both.

Davis has met with some success over the years, making friends with many Klansmen and even gently persuading some of the errors of their racist ways. Those who discard their KKK membership and ideology altogether and credit Davis’ respectful, non-judgemental personal outreach for their conversion gift him with their disavowed Klan robes and paraphenalia, which he keeps in a private collection that he hopes one day to display in a museum. Some might see this practice as strange or even troubling (and some tell Davis so right to his face in no uncertain terms), but for Davis, it constitutes a combination of trophies of victory and a tangible reminder of the deep past and enduring present of white supremacy and social and cultural discrimination against African-Americans.

Director Matthew Ornstein films Davis’ interactions with Klansmen, former Klansmen, and other white nationalists, men who are so often dismissed as frothing bigots and so often dismissive of any and all racial others and political opponents. Very little that any of the stubborn enduring white supremacists who speak to Davis on camera say or do contradicts such generalized labelling, and some who count him as a friend hold him only as an exception to the general negative nature of his “race”. Davis’ desire to recognize the humanity of these men (and very occasionally women) is certainly fraught, lest it perversely, unintentionally justify or normalize their hateful, damaging, extreme ideology (which a more recent credits post-script added to the film’s streaming release recognizes has been emboldened in an unprecedented way by Donald Trump’s election as U.S. President).

It’s impossible, however, to watch and listen to Davis speak during and after these encounters and consider him anything but well-intentioned and sincere. In the wider American political and social discourse, the exhortation to hold a meaningful dialogue on racial issues often seems a naive and perhaps cynical faux-panacea suggested by even nominally anti-discrimination figures as a productive-sounding substitute for the fundamental and nigh-on revolutionary social and institutional adjustments necessary to properly address and redress the country’s historical and continuing structures and process of anti-black oppression. Daryl Davis, however, is a charming, low-key evangelist for the transformative potential of such dialogue, at least on a micro level. The son of a State Department diplomat, Davis lived as a child in many foreign countries and in a variety of locations in the United States as well. Like Barack Obama growing up in Indonesia and Hawaii, Davis learned to relate to and connect with a diverse and oft-changing group of peers and was inculcated with the necessity and later the inherent value of forging personal liaisons with those outside of his own background, experience, and culture.

Credit is due to Ornstein and Davis, however, for being willing to include in Accidental Courtesy resonant instances of when, as it did with Obama and his most intransigent critics on the right, this dialogic approach falls short. While some of these instances predictably feature white supremacists (one major KKK leader flatly refuses to even acknowledge Davis as a friend let alone give an inch on his master-race beliefs, and an important American Neo-Nazi treats Davis politely but seems unconvinced by his soft pitch), the most explosively contentious and challenging one involves fellow African-American political activists.

Davis meets with two young Black Lives Matter marchers and organizers in Baltimore, where they have been active in civil disobedience and forceful protest against police brutality and discrimination against African-Americans, particularly following the arrest, beating, and death of Freddie Gray in 2015. Any assumptions an observer (white, especially, but otherwise as well) might have made about the potential common ground between Davis and these men is dispelled very quickly. They are aggressively sceptical about Davis’ methods, about his collection of Klan memoribilia (one flatly states that he would never take his children to any museum about the KKK), and more than anything about the effectiveness of his efforts and their tangible benefits for the African-American community. Through active protest and building of robust black institutions and communities, they feel, their people can derive more advantage than could ever be possible from having coffee with Klansmen who despise them and deny their very personhood.

The encounter degenerates into shouting and namecalling over an issue of minor consequence (which his chats with white racist never seem to, at least that we’re shown), and Davis does not come off very well from the episode. Neither do his younger antagonists, though, who blithely declare their preference for the openly racist Donald Trump (“At least you know where he stands,” they pronounce with a disastrous naiveté which they might come to regret if his administration’s promised law enforcement crackdown on Black Lives Matter and other left-wing protest groups comes to fruition) over the unreliable neoliberal Hillary Clinton. Nor do they substantively refute Davis’ accusation of the preference for segregation and separation evident in their views, although his greeting-card sentiment that they must all share the same country, black or white, seems a weak stab at persuasion.

But the whole episode is indelible, hard to shake, and challenges the perspective that has developed and been nurtured throughout the rest of Accidental Courtesy. The utility and even moral standing of Davis’ conversing approach, which Ornstein treats as fascinating and wondrously impressive up to this point in the film, is deeply shaken, and even a feel-good concluding story of one of Davis’ converted Klan scalps who now actively campaigns publicly against racism and white supremacy cannot restore the prior equilibrium. The pregnant dichotomy of the scene in Baltimore, the conflict between the macroscopic, self-righteous, mass-focused activism of Black Lives Matter and the microscopic, self-effacing, modest and friendly activism of Daryl Davis, strikes one as not only unresolved but perhaps tragically unresolvable, seeing as there are elements of merit in both approaches.

If only, the BLM agents insist, they had the time or the patience (or, one must admit, the privilege) to convince one white American at a time to treat them with equal respect and grant them equal opportunities and rights as citizens. But the plight of Black America is simply too urgent, they feel, requiring action more wide-reaching and drastic than Davis’ dialogues, which for all of their good intent strike them as irredeemably foolish and a waste of resources. Davis, for his part, does not see the effective conversion potential in BLM’s activities, and worries their tactics and aims merely calcify the racial divide that he hopes to see erode away. This dialectical collision leaves no answer for the viewer, only deepening the questions and doubts about the correct path to righting America’s most enduring wrong.

A further post-script to Accidental Courtesy, unmentioned in the film due to the proximity of the event to its release, further destabilizes Daryl Davis’ paradigm of hope for American race relations. One of Davis’ KKK friends in the film is a man called Frank Ancona, a Missouri Imperial Wizard (Klan titles and honorifics are like something out of pulp sword-and-sorcery novels; Exalted Cyclops is another). In the days before the film’s release, Ancona’s body was found in a Missouri river. He was murdered, his wife and stepson charged in his death. Personal issues appeared to be the motive, and the world of white supremacist terror groups is a harsh and violent one of its own accord. But one must wonder if the film’s revelation of Ancona’s willingness to relax his racial ideology in the case of Davis played into his death in any way as well. Hate is resilient, even if Daryl Davis kindly and doggedly suggests that love is as well.

Donald Trump Wants his Worst Policies to Fail: An Unsupported but Plausible Line of Thought

March 16, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve never bought into the suspicious, nigh-on cleverer-than-thou American political observer line of thought that U.S. President Donald Trump is not dim-witted, incompetent, imprudent, or hopelessly led by impulse and instinct but is, in fact, strategically brilliant and always thinking several steps ahead of his critics and the media, laying down narratives in advance to distract their attention from real problems and reports less-favourable to him. When weighing the choice between genius and ineptitude to explain Trump and his team’s seemingly haphazard and bumbling actions through the turbulent opening months of his Presidency, I’m generally inclined towards ineptitude on Occam’s Razor grounds, at the very least.

With all of that being said, I think there could be a consistent case to be made that Trump and his Administration is allowing certain policy promises from his presidential campaign to fail, or at least they are curiously deigning not to lift more than a perfunctory short finger to battle on their cherished, America-greatening policies’ behalf as they go down in flames. The case study for this argument is his notorious travel ban applied to citizens of seven six Muslim countries. Struck down by federal judges after its sneak weekend application at the end of January created chaos and sparked indignant protests at airports across the U.S. and the globe, a watered-down version of the ban (which Trump’s acolytes won’t even openly acknowledge is a “ban”) due to go into effect this week has also been blocked by federal courts in Hawaii and Maryland (at least partially on the basis of public statements by Trump lieutenants that the order, however it was worded, had specific religious discrimination at the forefront of its aims).

At the core of this argument, if you’ll stay with me as I make it, is the hoary, cynical old theory that Donald Trump only wants to be President for the money and the fame. This thinking has often been dismissed, and has been largely abandoned by pundits since he won the election, but I think it might still hold, at least in this case.

You don’t have to look very deeply or for very long at Trump’s public political statements to conclude that he holds them rather lightly. At the risk of getting bogged down in the much-mocked “take him seriously, not literally” morass, it’s clear that Trump very often just, you know, says things. He’s firmly stated his position on matters and then just as firmly (and sometimes conveniently) forgotten that he ever stated that position. It’s not that words don’t matter when Donald Trump speaks them, but more so that they cease to matter to him very soon after he does. The man is fundamentally a serial bullshitter, but even the supposed core values beneath that surface-level bullshit are unstable and mercurial. Certain specific views remain consistent over the years (particularly, and revealingly, those related to race), but most are up for grabs at any given moment.

What is consistent throughout Trump’s public adult (ha!) life is his shameless grifting and his bottomless gluttony for fame. His politics and even his party affiliations can and have changed depending on who he’s trying to extract money or adulation or power and influence from at any given moment, but he’s always trying to do that above all. This might be the reason why he liked campaigning so much, and why he retreats to campaign poses in times of political turmoil: ego-boosting rallies, plentiful money-making opportunities (from voters, donors, and from general brand exposure), and he could say whatever he liked without real or immediate concrete consequences.

Perhaps Trump thought it would be the same in office. It quite assuredly is not. The grifting continues, emoluments clause be damned: foreign dignitaries staying at his hotels, multiple weekends spent at his Mar-a-Lago resort club residence in Florida (which has recently raised membership fees, ostensibly due to the unspoken promise of access to the President), the purchase of items from his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line marshalled as a right-wing political act, any number of potential hidden bribes and secret deals that are not transparent to the public, etc. But Trump hasn’t gotten the adulation he feels that he deserves as President, though a man who launched his political career with nastily racist conspiracy theories casting doubt on the citizenship of the sitting President should know better than anyone that as many citizens hate the POTUS as love him, that respect for the office and its power and prestige in the abstract has rarely translated to concrete respect for the man who holds it. His (frankly worrying) choice of presidential model, Andrew Jackson, could have told him that.

More important for the purposes of this discussion than that, however, is that Trump’s words, often lightly chosen and even more lightly supported by facts, have greater consequences now. His dashed-off, seat-of-his-pants tweets, the dramatic complaining tone of which endeared this sheltered Manhattan millionaire to his horde of loyal common supporters, are now the official pronouncement of the Leader of the Free World. However flippantly Trump is used to deploying words to his perceived advantage, they mean more now.

This new reality has implications for all of those outlandish promises Trump made during the campaign. Now, as President with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, he’s expected to deliver on them, or at least to make a concerted and honest effort to do so. How firm those expectations are is unclear, based in voter perspective and passion, the support of his party, and media pressure, among other factors. Whatever the impetus for or level of these expectations, one can imagine Trump having a despondent Sideshow Bob-ish reaction to how his flood of campaign words are understood now:

The issue could be immigration, where both the blocked Muslim ban and his central promise of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border (paid for by Mexico) are proving to fall short, or health care, where the contentious and faltering Republican House bill to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a system that will cost needier patients more and cover millions fewer people flies in the face of his brash claims on the stump that he would deliver a health plan that would cover everyone. He can’t, in these and many other cases, deliver on these brazen promises and even in his isolated bubble someone around him has surely told him that much.

This brings us to his Muslim travel ban, which has again been blocked again by federal courts. Trump has legal experts of some stripe around him; someone lawyerish crafted the executive order, after all. Perhaps one should assume simple ineptitude again, but surely an advisor or few must have known that the order would not pass legal muster. And, as Trump said in a speech in Tennessee given the same night as the news dropped of the new court order blocking the revised ban order, he wants to go back to the original ban order, which he preferred anyway. And, of course, which was already blocked in court and would, in unaltered form, certainly be blocked again if re-implemented.

Is the President just that dumb? Are his people that bad at finding ways to apply his harmful intended policies? Or is there an element of unwillingness at play, a disguised through-line of stealthy self-sabotage? Despite its basis in racist xenophobia (as close to a core belief as the ever-shifty Trump has), does he not really care that much about delivering on his Muslim ban promise? Or does he consider it only useful (or more useful) as source material for rousing rhetoric to please and rile up the xenophobic rubes in his support base? Judges block his ban so its messy consequences never come to pass. But Trump can still use the court order as a rhetorical cudgel against activist judges, the politically-correct institutions of the elite, the Washington consensus, sore-loser leftist protestors, etc. Specific initiatives fail, but the narrative endures. His political brand, Trump the besieged great man held down by limp-wristed snowflakes and corrupt technocratic global elites (but no anti-Semitism here, none of that, that is right out), endures.

This idea might furtively give Donald Trump some limited credit for secretly not wanting to prevent entry to the country for all Muslims from six countries (the original seven nations minus Iraq, likely removed from the order after bad press connected to Iraqi translators and other allies of U.S. forces in the country having visa troubles) for stated, dubious security-related reasons. But whether it’s true or not (and it certainly might not be, or might only partly be), it focuses on the man’s venality and irresponsibility in occupying the highest office in the U.S. Who cares about governing, it tells us, as long as Donald Trump is raking in the cash and the accolades of (a certain declining sliver of) the masses? True or not, this theory is plausible and well-grounded in Trump’s personality and predilections, and that inherent aura of plausibility tells us nearly as much about this odd, troubling, greedy figure in emperor’s robes as the actual truth would.

Film Review: Zootopia

December 9, 2016 Leave a comment

Zootopia (2016; Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore)

For a lovable animated feature film about talking anthropomorphized animals and the human-like civilization they inhabit, Zootopia feels as urgent and politically timely as a year’s worth of Frontline documentaries. It’s a subtly forceful allegory of warning against the destructive consequences of prejudice and racial profiling (even if it often wants to have its ethno-cultural stereotype cake and eat it too) that only gains resonance in the face of the election of a U.S. President who cynically utilized those forces for his benefit. It mouths the words of conventional “anything is possible” American Dream messaging while actually feeding off the social justice currency of the Ferguson, Missouri protests and Black Lives Matter, as well as rising resistance against sexism and the divisive, fear- and power-driven political cleavages of a polarized America.

Since Zootopia is a movie of that polarized America, its perspective on its richly-imagined setting – an urbanized neoliberal technocratic capitalist society of human-like animals – is necessarily filtered through the culture’s preferred (though hardly uncontroversially so) heroes: the police. Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) is a rabbit from a rural town who is unwilling to continue in the family carrot-farming business with her hundreds of siblings. Judy is blessed/cursed with a grand sense of idealism, and her overriding dream and ambition is to move to the great animal metropolis of Zootopia, which she envisions as a shining city on a hill of opportunity, openness and interspecies tolerance, and help to make that city a better place as a police officer. She would be the first bunny cop, and everyone from her parents to bullying local school peers to academy trainers tells her she is not cut out for it and would be foolish to even try.

But Judy is smart, capable, determined, and greatly motivated, especially by the follow-your-dreams pop anthem “Try Anything” by superstar singer Gazelle (Shakira). She overcomes all of the doubt and obstacles to graduate at the top of her class and win an assignment to the Zootopia Police Department’s central precinct. What she finds there doesn’t accord with either her twice-as-good work ethic nor her lofty visions of altruism: she’s immediately busted to meter maid duty by the gruff, cynical water buffalo Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), confronted with the disdain of her fellow officers (many of whom feel her a token PR hire to the force) and citizens, and worn down by the loneliness of life in a new, big city. Even when she busts a flower bulb thief after a frenetic chase, she is not rewarded but is rather threatened with dismissal for overstepping her bounds, and only saves her job by striking a bargain with Chief Bogo to solve a missing mammal case that the ZPD brass seems to want no part of (the depiction of the internal department operations is far less realistic than, say, on The Wire, but this is ultimately a talking animal kiddie cartoon, after all).

With 48 hours to find a missing otter or else turn in her cherished ZPD badge, Judy leans on a two-bit con-hustling fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) to help her scare up some leads. His snide dismissal and reluctance compelled aside by evidence of his tax evasion, Wilde aids Judy in gradually uncovering a shadow conspiracy to activate the savage killer instincts of Zootopia’s predator minority as part of a dastardly grasp for power.

Their investigation leans on buddy-cop movie clichés and other genre conventions, but it also provides a wide-scope view of the world of Zootopia. The fantasy animal city is cleverly and spectacularly rendered and quite detailed, but also feels proscribed in its realization and the film’s exploration of the environment. Different ecosystems are represented in different neighbourhoods: Sahara Square is a parched desert, the Rainforest District all vines and towering jungles foliage, Tundratown an arctic waste, and small rodents live in their own bustling urban miniature enclave. Animals drive cars, use computers and cell phones, and wear clothing (with the exception of a commune of freaky-hippie nudists, whose lack of garments shocks Judy when she and Nick follow a lead there), but Zootopia frequently skims the creative surface with the real distinctions between human civilization and this anthropomorphic animal one, taking many of its features as simply assumed from the audience’s recognition of their own modern life experience.

If the gleaming city-of-the-future design of Zootopia’s material reality can feel a bit underdeveloped, then its version of the unsettled set of social and racial relations of contemporary America is unnervingly tangible and topically relevant. Although the animal world’s primal divisions of predators and prey have, in Zootopia, been submerged under the lapping tides of capitalist democracy, consumer culture, and liberal tolerance, they simmer still beneath the surface. Judy’s parents distrust the city and what they perceive to be the dangerous predators who dwell there, and a not-insignificant portion of their fear transfers to their daughter. This fear stirs instinctually within prey animals in the city as well, despite constituting the vast majority of the population. So when a minority within the minority of meat-eaters begin to revert to their savage predatory state (raising the unanswered question about what they eat the rest of the time), widespread public panic amongst prey citizens, as well as hurt and resentment among zootopiathe predators accused of returning to their repressed biological urges, is quick to manifest itself across the metropolis.

This plot and its themes contain resonant echoes of America’s common currency of fear, paranoia, and racial prejudices and tensions. White Americans’ enduring bigoted stereotypes of African-Americans as dangerous predatory criminals are clearly being invoked, for certain (as are more recent blanket associations of all Muslims with extremist terrorism). The prey animals’ majority in the city is clearly stated at 90%, leaving the predator animals at 10%, conspicuously close to African-Americans’ 12% share of the U.S. population (though also reflective of the predator-prey distribution in the animal kingdom of our own world). Recognizable incidences of fraught racial prejudice are played for light-ish comic effect: when the chubby cheetah desk cop Clawhauser (Nate Torrence) coos that Judy is a “cute bunny”, she tentatively explains that other bunnies can call each other cute, but it’s problematic when other species say it; Judy and Nick first meet when the latter is running a con on an elephant sweets shop that attempts to refuse service to smaller species like foxes or rabbits.

Judy Hopps is confronted with much of the casual discrimination and swimming-upstream difficulty that women and people of colour face in the workplace (especially in white-male-dominated fields like law enforcement), but it’s couched as being predicated on her species more than her gender. Less a glass ceiling than a grass ceiling, then. Her fellow cops are mostly larger, stronger herbivores: elephants, rhinos, and hippos, even a wolf on the undercover squad (you can guess what animal’s clothing he’s disguised in, I’m sure, but the joke is better-executed than you might expect). Nick Wilde, drummed into cynicism by a traumatic childhood experience of species-specific discrimination, likewise stereotypes Judy. He is stereotyped by her in turn, despite her best efforts at tolerance. Even if his slippery, untrustworthy fox identity hews close to the supposed archetype, Zootopia intelligently argues that he slips into a shifty existence as a defeated fulfillment of his peers’ insistence on labelling him as such. It isn’t surprising, given all of this thematic material, that Rich Moore is a co-director: he helmed Disney’s recent stand-out Wreck-It Ralph, another metaphorically sophisticated animated film about labelling and stereotypes and their relationship to the wielding of social and political power (the economic valence goes unsounded in both films; perhaps it’s a bit too much for kids, or even most adults).

It’s well worth noting that Zootopia is far from pure and righteous in its critical stance towards the application and diffusion of ethnic, cultural, and racial stereotypes. It deploys some broad Italian-American stereotypes of its own when Judy and Nick meet Tundratown’s feared crime boss Mr. Big (Maurice LaMarche), who mutters like Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone and whose daughter sports a Jersey Shore artificial tan and a Snooki bump-it hairdo. It also needs saying, and has been said by other critics, that despite Zootopia‘s characters aghast reactions at the idea of predators being biologically or instinctually inclined to kill and eat prey animals, well… they are. For all of the liberties that the film’s cartoon animals allow its phalanx of writers to cleverly comment on prejudice and discrimination, the metaphor ultimately has its limitations as well.

It’s also well worth noting, given all of these racially-toned themes, Zootopia‘s place in Disney Animation history. Or, more precisely, its place as a ritual of atonement for that history. Disney’s use of cartoon animals to self-consciously argue against racial stereotyping in Zootopia can only strike one as a purposeful if belated effort to apologize for, mitigate, or even invert the studio’s historical use of cartoon animals to insensitively spread racial stereotyping. The infamous rosy-glasses view of Reconstruction and minstrel show characterizations of Song of the South (whose perceived racism has kept it locked in Disney’s vaults to this day) are the best-known indiscretions in the studio’s history, but Dumbo‘s jive-talking crows and even the more contemporary Aladdin‘s clumsy Arabic bigotry must be acknowledged in the litany of shame. Zootopia has its own issues in this vein, as noted, but it’s both a stab at forgiveness for past errors of prejudiced judgement and a heartening attempt to move forward into a more conscious representational future. When it’s said that popular discourse would ideally avow responsibility for past wrongs and work intelligently and openly to forge a better path, Zootopia is what that process looks like, and for that it deserves no small measure of credit.

While I obviously can’t speak to how Zootopia would play to children (seeing as I am not one, appearances aside), it plays like gangbusters for adults who will recognize the cornucopia of social, political, cultural and professional gags and references it unleashes with cheery humour. Indeed, the movie pushes the standard contemporary animated feature film undercurrent of witty, sophisticated jokes and adult-oriented hat-tips about as far as it can go. Zootopia is definitely the only PG–rated Disney animated feature that has ever included a scene in what is essentially a meth lab (and with an overt Breaking Bad reference to cinch the association), or to craft a painstaking visual homage to The Godfather, or to create a hilarious sequence combining persistent jokes about the sloth’s pace of DMV bureaucracy (staffed, in Zootopia, by actual sloths, natch) with a classic 1950s comedy routine. This, in addition to the aforementioned spectrum of sociopolitical and racial issues it nimbly raises and addresses as well as the delightful craft and glee with which it was made, makes Zootopia a strong highlight in a year of strong highlights for the House of Mouse.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

President-Elect Donald J. Trump: A Grim Assessment

November 9, 2016 Leave a comment

The nearly unfathomable has happened: Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States. Despite polling, media prognostications, and the seeming inevitability that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would win the White House, the Republican nominee triumphed instead, smashing through Clinton’s firewall of supposed safe states (and the establishment consensus that backed her) on a wave of hitherto unpredictable white nationalist fury. What comes next is anyone’s guess, but it likely won’t be good for progressives, persons of colour, Muslims, Hispanics, LGTBQ citizens, women, and basically anyone who isn’t a white male (and it won’t be nearly great for them either, despite Trump’s grandiose promises).

To say that the result is disheartening for anyone but Trump’s deluded workaday partisans and the considerable reserves of open racists in his camp would be an understatement. To say that his administration is almost certainly going to be a disaster of the highest magnitude for the country (and perhaps the world) cannot be overstated. The sole slim glimmers of light shining through the dark cloak thrown over the American project today may be as follows:

  1. If Trump runs the country the way he has run his litany of failed businesses, the rank incompetence of the man and his team may prevent the worst of his proposals – expensive border walls, travel bans on entire faiths, broken alliances and trade deals, ordering American troops to commit war crimes, utilizing the power of the government to pursue personal vendettas against his enemies – from being effectively enacted. Even in that eventuality, though, the waste of resources, time, and effort to pursue them would be astronomical and the damage done to the legitimacy of government authority as well as to the lives of hundreds, thousands, millions incalculable.
  2. Flattered by the attention and prestige of his office, Trump elects to play a mostly public ceremonial role as President and leaves the hard work of governing to Vice-President Mike Pence, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and Republican congressional leadership. This is not only unlikely but uncomforting, as Pence and Ryan subscribe to fiscal and social policy with as much or more mass hurtful potential than Trump’s wild (and perhaps safely impractical) schemes.
  3. Trump is 70 years old, so at least when he makes himself dictator for life, it won’t be for very long.

Grim assessments and sickened shock aside, perhaps Donald Trump’s victory is not so surprising. America’s two-party system tends to default to each party taking turns with a President from their ranks in the White House, and with incumbent Presidents’ natural electoral advantage, the switch is most likely when the incumbent leaves office at the end of their second term. Democrats have an especially difficult time achieving in-party electoral transitions, historically speaking. Trump’s crude and rude unconventionality made it seem unimaginable that he could win the election, and that unimaginability, that firm conviction and hope that he could not win, infected and displaced rational assessments from the left as to whether it was a possible result.

Furthermore, Trumpism’s victory makes a good deal of sense given a deeper knowledge of American history. Periods of demographic change, social upheaval, and expansion have often proven to be fertile breeding grounds for nostalgic, turn-back-time nativism such as that deployed by Trump this year. Witness Andrew Jackson’s damaging policies aimed at American Indians, or the Know Nothings of the mid-19th Century and their anti-Irish Catholic fervor, or the Southern backlash against Reconstruction, or the America First movement of the WWII era, or the John Birch Society in the 1950s and 1960s. Beyond these specific examples of spiritual heirs of Trumpism, however, reading back into American history shows a long string of political institutions and movements calibrated for the benefit of whites at the expense of non-whites (African-Americans in particular, of course, though not exclusively). In the light of this tradition of exploitation of cultural difference, much of it through the auspices of private enterprise capitalism, Donald Trump is not an aberration but a predictable mutation of the American predatory DNA.

There will be no limit to the designated scapegoats for this potentially world-shifting development: Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party that he defeated, of course, but also the Republican elites that mistrusted but made no attempt to stop Trump, third-party candidates, Russian interference, government institutions, the ineffectual media, and the working-class whites who turned out to elect him. But perhaps the forces, the American undercurrents, most responsible for this ominous result are the disavowed monsters of the nation’s history and culture.

The media specifically, and the national discourse generally, could not effectively counter Trump’s revanchist fantasies of restored prior glory because they have never properly and effectively faced up to the implications of American history, and to capitalism’s often pernicious role in shaping that history. In the practical short term, offering all possible lawful protest to Trump’s policies and practices, conducting a quick and effective forensic audit of the Democratic Party perhaps leading to a strong bounceback in the 2018 midterm elections is the immediate pushback against Trump’s masterplans (perhaps a deeper re-assessment of the entire two-party system may be in order, too, but neither major party is incentivized to engage in one).

But in the longer term, the United States will remain vulnerable to Trump and similar authoritarian demagogues unless it truly grapples with, and tangibly attempts to redress, the wrongs and crimes of its history. That is unlikely to happen under President Trump, who celebrates the tradition of brutality of power directed against the weak inherent to American history and will seek to recapture its “greatness”. But a wider effort in the cultural discourse to confront the past, while resisting the official reification of its darkest (and even less dark) chapters, might yet do enough good to make a difference in America’s now ever-more uncertain future.

Film Review: Citizenfour

October 28, 2016 Leave a comment

Citizenfour (2014; Directed by Laura Poitras)

The story of Edward Snowden, the NSA (National Security Agency) computer analyst contractor who leaked digital volumes upon volumes of information about the United States government’s top-secret data collection operations and thus revealed a sophisticated and alarming system of state surveillance of private citizens in America and worldwide, is one of the most vital political stories of our time. Citizenfour tells his story practically in real time via the camera of Laura Poitras, the intrepid political documentarian whom he first covertly contacted in his gradual, intricately-planned process of releasing the explosive information about the wide-net surveillance and data collection program.

Indeed it is Snowden’s intricacy, the elaborately considered care with which he chooses his every word just as he chose his remarkable, brave and personally dangerous course of action, that comes through so strongly through Poitras’ lens. The hyperbolic mudslinging directed at him by U.S. government spokespeople, politicians, and media (traitor, radical, Russian agent, even terrorist) invested in delegitimizing his damaging revelations about the NSA’s oppressive overreach of constitutional bounds fails to stick to this characterization.

Snowden states his objections to becoming a public figure via his whistleblowing as well as his reluctance to allow the personality-driven media to make him, rather than the compendious official abuses he exposed, the focus of the story. Still, Snowden has been in the public eye for a few years now, earning much of his income in exile through speaking engagements, and his statements and even his actions since his historic info-dump have not always demonstrated such exquisite circumspection. But in Citizenfour, in the midst of the act itself, he demonstrates a tremendously exacting determination to get every detail of his revelations precisely right. No wonder the NSA trusted him to work on their data dragnet program in the first place.

Citizenfour moves slowly in establishing the developing relationship between Poitras the investigative filmmaker (who remains ever offscreen) and Snowden the prized source, with the text of their encrypted email exchanges sometimes displayed onscreen and sometimes read in voiceover by Poitras, in one instance over footage of the construction work being done on a massive government data centre. But the film gains traction and becomes a galvanizing experience when Snowden joins Poitras and her camera, as well as Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, to hole up in a Hong Kong hotel room for days on end.

There, Snowden and the journalists whom he essentially hand-picked to sift through the information he leaked them about the NSA’s data collection program talk through its operations, its aims, its reach, and the consequences he expects and accepts for himself for revealing this stunning information to the public (he’s highly astute about even those implications; at one point, he tells his collaborators that he expects the authorities to charge him using some obscure and perhaps legally dubious 19th-century law, and sure enough when the charges come, they are under the World War I-era Espionage Act).

Basically, what he tells them is that the NSA, in concert with major telecommunications and internet companies, intercepts, collects and can instantly search the emails, cell phone calls, text messages, and internet activity of millions of Americans and other digital users outside the country as well (including heads of state, such as German Chancellor Andrea Merkel). It’s an extensive mass surveillance system straight out of Orwell which NSA officials told the U.S. Congress point-blank did not exist. Snowden could not countenance working on a secret, unconstitutional invasion of citizens’ privacy any longer, and decided to disclose it to the public in spite of the price that he himself knew he would pay for that choice. With the help of experienced journalists like Greenwald and MacAskill to sort through the documents he gives them and decide what is in the public interest to publish and what might be dangerous classified information to put out in the world (a stark contrast to WikiLeaks’ fanatical insistence on full disclosure), Snowden watches from his room as his revelations, and then his identity, break into the media.

It’s difficult not to be a little shaken by the depths of government surveillance that Snowden reveals, but the paranoid caution that Snowden displays on camera (at one point using a laptop with a bedsheet over his head and the computer to frustrate any possible “visual collection”) deepens the alarm. If someone who knows what he knows about this system is this paranoid, it must be justified (though Snowden’s position in that Hong Kong hotel room is hardly analogous to that of ordinary citizens texting and emailing about crushes, grocery lists, surprise party plans, or even political opinions). Even Greenwald, who has been writing trenchantly about the American government’s post-9/11 curtailment of civil liberties for years and has not a single scale on his eyes as regards the secretive and often malignant operations of the national security apparatus, is intermittently shocked by what Snowden tells him, especially when he reveals that a government watch list runs to over a million names.

Snowden eventually leaves the hotel room, Hong Kong, and Asia entirely, eventually winding up living in Russia indefinitely after the U.S. State Department revokes his passport while he was in transit through Moscow (he’s still there today, at an undisclosed location). Despite his qualms about celebrity and notoriety, and perhaps at least partly because of those qualms, Snowden is presented in Citizenfour as a sacrificing hero, a sort of secular ascetic saint suffering in relatively comfortable exile for America’s sins against its own fabled liberty.

Poitras respects her subject’s wish to not be the subject to some extent, leaving the only background on Snowden’s life to be provided by the man himself, but she’s too good a filmmaker to miss the human story at the heart of the larger, tentacular political one. If anything, it seems likely that she weighs the core issues more heavily than does Oliver Stone in his recent adaptation of Snowden’s story, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the infamous leaker (as much as I enjoy Gordon-Levitt, watching the real Snowden makes it clear that the only choice to play the man on film is mid-1990s Edward Norton). But the camera seeks out a star, and the forthright, intelligent, unerringly accurate Snowden is clearly its preferred focal point.

But let’s respect Snowden’s expressed wishes and focus on the cause of his exile, the sprawling program of official surveillance that he exposed and that, despite that exposure, remains in place. Snowden and Greenwald feel such a program contravenes the U.S. constitution and citizens’ privacy rights, while national security professionals insist that such trespasses, while regrettable, are the necessary cost of protecting the American people from threats they cannot begin to fully understand. Whatever you think of either of those opposing arguments (and I side with the privacy activists in finding the latter reasoning flawed; insert your contextless Benjamin Franklin “liberty/security” epigram here), the concept of a system of total surveillance of all American citizens at the disposal of the President and the government is more than a little troubling.

One might try to argue with any measure of authority that one commander-in-chief, say Barack Obama, would be of impeccable-enough character to only use this avalanche of personal data against truly dangerous enemies of the nation (although Greenwald has frequently asserted that the current President and administration is hardly above reproach in this regard). Even granting this (and we do not), what’s to stop an unstable authoritarian demagogue (I’m trying to think of one who might have a chance of becoming President but blanking at the present moment) from using the information to vengefully persecute personal enemies, discriminate against minority groups, or generally run a Real American neo-Stasi? Basically, nothing. Outside of this worst-case scenario, such power over the nation’s populace being entrusted to any government agency has disturbing implications, particularly if said agency is as non-transparent and immune to electoral pressures as the NSA.

Citizenfour is a conduit for these issues; indeed it focuses them like a laser beam. Despite Snowden’s personal sacrifice and the ongoing crusade of figures like Greenwald, the American surveillance state continues apace. The neoliberal Democrats who rule the White House are temperamentally, politically and ideologically disinclined to challenge the national security apparatus and the Republicans who control Congress are consistently chomping at the bit to wield it against their expanding plethora of enemies, real and imagined, internal and foreign. The discourse of projected strength remains the language of power in the United States, and neither faction of the country’s polarized political class nurturs much of a desire to challenge that orthodoxy. The force of Edward Snowden’s disclosures as narrativized in Citizenfour has not catalyzed such a challenge, necessary though it increasingly proves to be. But Snowden’s act may well have pulled back a curtain on mass surveillance and revealed something that cannot be hidden again, and the battle between privacy and security will rage ever on.