"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Secular Films with Religious Meaning: Film as a Potentially Deep Medium

A film need not be explicitly religious to proffer spiritual meaning. In fact, gritty stories that wrestle with thorny problems that people have faced or may face in everyday life can be more gripping even theologically than stories based on religious idealism, such as The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Ten Commandments.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


If a picture is worth a thousand words, then how many words are moving pictures worth? Add in a script and you have actual words—potentially quite substantive words—grounding all that pictorial worth. Moving pictures, or movies for short, are capable of conveying substantial meaning to audiences. In the case of the film, Snowden (2016), the meaning is heavy in political theory. In particular, democratic theory. The film’s value lies in depicting how far short the U.S. Government has slipped from the theory, and, indeed, the People to which that government is in theory accountable.

Secrecy is synonymous with security, Corbin O’Brian, an instructor at the CIA, tells Snowden. To inform even Congress is tantamount to the intel getting to America’s enemies. Lest it be assumed that the secret FISA court is a viable fallback democratic check on the CIA and NSA, Gabriel Sol informs Snowden that the court is merely a rubber-stamp. This view is confirmed when Corbin confirms to Snowden that Jennifer, Snowden’s girlfriend, is not sleeping with anyone else. The extent to which the CIA could spy on American citizens is presented best through image rather than word, as Gabriel shows Snowden (and the viewer) how much information can be gleamed on a person by looking at emails, Facebook pages, and even webcams presumably turned off. The extent to which the CIA was spying on Americans is shown by Snowden himself as he moves a laptop cursor from country to country on a map. The number of emails, etc. captured does not match with the countries thought to be America’s enemies. Interestingly, the Japanese government refuses to spy on their own people for the CIA, saying that doing so would be illegal. Tellingly, the CIA went around the Japanese government and collected emails, Facebook pages, and other material on Japanese citizens. The lack of limitation is the motif that best describes American intelligence, and yet how very stupid it is to presume that no accountability is somehow ok in a democratic republic.
A video of President Obama referring dismissively to Snowden as just some 28-year-old hacker puts the president firmly on the side of the CIA and NSA. That the man who campaigned on “real change” would end up defending a corrupt old guard is a sad commentary that is only implicit in the film. The president’s arrogance is more apparent. That the DNC under Obama would unfairly favor Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the selection of the party’s nominee for president in 2016 can be seen as an extension of Obama defending the corrupt CIA and NSA.
Edward Snowden is left with the heavy duty of acting on behalf of the American people. They should know what is going on so they can decide whether the security interest trumps civil liberties as much as the People’s agents in the executive branch conveniently assume. An expose on CBS’s 60 Minutes, shown in part in the film, tells the viewer that working internally—being a whistleblower—is a recipe only for retaliation, so acting on behalf of the American People—trying to reach them—must be done outside of the government. In no way does acting on this duty constitute espionage; rather, the CIA and NSA are depicted in the film as being guilty of breaking the law in spying on untainted American citizens. By implication, the judges sitting on the FISA court must have been similarly guilty, in so far as they acted as a rubber-stamp resulting in Americans being spied on by their own government without any reason of suspicion to justify the permission of the secret court.
In the end, the film depicts the terrible power in the establishment, as well as how distant it is from the popular sovereign, the People. In terms of democratic theory, the agents are not well controlled by the principals. That is to say, the agency costs are high in the American republic. Historically, the American founders even in the Constitutional Convention in 1787 would have bristled at the CIA’s power depicted in the film. Surely those men would label such a government as a tyrant operating at the expense of liberty—ironically to safeguard what little is left. The purpose of the CIA and NSA is the true irony in the film, which succeeds in holding up an uncomfortable mirror both to the governors and the governed in the United States. In writing essays, I attempt a similar role, and in so doing I’m sure I have just lost some liberty in terms of privacy, since this essay is full of keywords—hardly the least of which is liberty, as from unreasonable searches.