Hard Landings

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We tend to assign major significance to minor occurrences, especially where travel and potential accidents are concerned. “Thank goodness,” we think, “I stopped to check the mail, or I might have been involved in that crash I just passed.” We may even hesitate to change seats on a plane, or to change flights when an overbooking voucher is offered, for fear that, in the (very unlikely) event of an accident, we will have made a fatal mistake.

I thought of that tendency while watching an early scene in Sully. Three men (father and sons, as it turns out) rush to catch an alternative flight after their intended flight has been cancelled. They share high fives all around as the gate attendant relents and lets them board the plane, happy that their fishing vacation will not have to be delayed or postponed. Of course, we in the audience know that they just thwarted their guardian angels’ attempt to protect them; they’ve just boarded US Airways 1549, headed for the Hudson River and a whole new kind of fishing expedition. The dramatic foreshadowing continues as one son opts for the lone seat at the back of the plane so that his brother and father can have two seats together. Will this generous offer be his last?

The film opens with scenes of the low-flying plane, but something is wrong.

It’s risky to make a movie about an event so recent and fresh in the public’s memory as the miraculous water landing of a jet plane on the Hudson River in January 2009, after a flock of geese got sucked into the engines. And the entire event took just 208 seconds, plus another 20 minutes or so to rescue the passengers and crew. We all watched the news clips and interviews. What could a director — even one as skilled as Clint Eastwood — do to stretch the event into a full-length feature more interesting than what we’ve already seen on the news?

Despite my skepticism, I was fully engaged throughout this film. Eastwood chose to focus most of it not on the crash — er, I mean, water landing, as Sully (Tom Hanks) is quick to point out — or on Sully’s heroism, but on what he endured during the aftermath.

The film opens with scenes of the low-flying plane, but something is wrong. Instead of a river, we see buildings. This isn’t right. This isn’t the way it happened. Then Sully wakes up, and we realize that our hero, this man who managed to save 155 passengers and crew without a single casualty, is having recurrent nightmares about what happened, and what might have happened. Unable to sleep, he puts on jogging clothes and runs through the streets of New York, but he can’t run away from his fears.

This conflict drives the story and engages the audience’s ire at Big Government and Big Business.

Worse, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is having similar thoughts about what might have been, except that their thoughts aren’t nightmares. The NTSB actually sets out to prove, using computers and cockpit simulators, that the plane had enough thrust, altitude, and time to have returned to LaGuardia or landed at nearby Teeterboro Airport, thus sparing the plane and the trauma endured by the passengers. If they find against the captain, his career, his reputation, and his retirement pension will be gone. This conflict drives the story and engages the audience’s ire at Big Government and Big Business. We are outraged that they would sully Captain Sully’s reputation, and for a while I’m outraged at Eastwood too, for making this the focus of the film.

Eastwood knows best, of course, and the positioning of the NTSB simulators against the tense, calm, and quick-witted actions of Sully and his copilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) in the real cockpit make for a conclusion as exciting as the moment when we turned on our television screens and saw a plane sitting pretty as a duck on the Hudson, with 155 people huddling on her wings, surrounded by ferry boats. Watch for Vincent Lombardi playing himself as the ferry boat captain who was first on the scene, and stay for the credits to see the actual passengers and crew in a cathartic reunion with Sully and his wife (played by Laura Linney in the film).

Another eponymous biopic that opened this week also tells the story of a man whose reputation has been “sullied” by the government — or so we are led to believe. But we aren’t sure about Edward Snowden. Is he a hero who sacrificed essential freedoms in order to blow the whistle on government snooping and intrusion? Or is he a traitor who put patriots and foreign operatives at risk when he revealed sensitive, top-secret documents? Real people have real questions about this case, and those questions are not addressed in the film.

Both Snowden and the 2014 Oscar winning documentary Citizenfour present just one side of the issue: Edward Snowden’s side. I tend to be on that side, but as pointed out in my review of Citizenfour, Snowden controlled the famous interviews he provided to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewan MacAskill (played in this movie by Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, and Tom Wilkinson) at the Hotel Mira in Hong Kong. They never challenged him or did any additional investigation (that we know of) to see whether U.S. operatives were harmed by his revelations. So the story is undeniably one-sided.

Snowden's patriotism feels a little odd, since he names Ayn Rand as one of his early influences, and I don’t think she would have approved of passionate service or statism of any sort.

The movie’s interviews, which provide the running narrative of the film, are almost identical to what we saw in the documentary, prompting me to question the point of making this narrative feature. However, Snowden provides a satisfying backstory we didn’t see in the documentary’s interviews, and that makes this film worth seeing.

Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seems to have been a patriotic young man with a fervent desire to serve his country. (This felt a little odd to me, since he names Ayn Rand as one of his early influences, and I don’t think she would have approved of passionate service or statism of any sort.) He serves first in the military, then as a computer coder for the CIA, and then as a private contractor providing services to both the NSA and the CIA. A brilliant mathematician and analyst, he was able to crack codes and create complex computer programs designed to thwart hackers and aid government surveillance. But soon he discovers that the NSA and CIA have been spying on virtually everyone’s private phone calls and emails; they even have a program that can remotely activate your computer’s built-in video camera and watch you inside your office or bedroom — whether your computer is turned on or off. (Yes, I have a post-it taped over the camera on my laptop as I write this, and it will remain there. You start to feel sort of paranoid after watching this film.)

As depicted in the film, Ed Snowden is a quiet, soft-spoken young man without the outgoing charisma we normally associate with courage and heroism. He doesn’t have enough personality to engage potential operatives at a cocktail party, although he does come alive when he’s with his girlfriend, amateur photographer, pole dancer, and left-leaning semi-activist Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). Her glowing smile and natural charisma, and her unrestrained love for him, help us to care about him too. Their relationship also serves to convince us that his motives are pure: how could he leave this charming young girl behind, unless he truly believed in the rightness of what he was doing? On the other hand, could her left-leaning politics have influenced his actions more than his own patriotism did? She left the United States to join him in Russia. For love or politics? We don’t know, and nothing in the film suggests that she is anything but innocent.

They even have a program that can remotely activate your computer’s built-in video camera and watch you inside your office or bedroom — whether your computer is turned on or off.

At 134 minutes, Snowden is about 30 minutes too long. The scenes that show what the CIA and NSA were doing, and how, are heavy on technical jargon (although I suspect they worked hard to simplify it), and we spend a lot of time watching the characters watch screens. But the second half of the film, especially the part beginning when Snowden realizes that he has to blow the whistle in order to protect the public, is tense and exciting. The final scene, when Edward Snowden himself appears, is thrilling. I wanted to applaud him in the theater. (We are hoping to bring him to FreedomFest this year through Skype.)

Both these films present interesting character studies of unlikely heroes — men who never craved the limelight or set out to change the world but rose to greatness when presented with crises that only they could address. Sully is the better film, but Snowden is worth seeing as well.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Sully," directed by Clint Eastwood. FilmNation Entertainment, 2016, 96 minutes; and "Snowden," directed by Oliver Stone. Endgame Entertainment, 2016, 134 minutes.



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Citizen Snowden

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Thanks to the generosity of a very thoughtful husband, I had the opportunity to attend the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City with my figure skating daughter. Before we could enter any venue or even walk around the grounds outside the venues, we had to pass through metal detectors and bag checks. You probably don’t find that news particularly surprising or appalling; a dozen years later, we take it for granted that our bags will be checked before entering any arena, terminal, school, or public building. But at the time this was brand new. It angered me that strangers were looking through my purse and personal belongings every time I entered the area. The Marines provided aerial and radar surveillance of the event, and we learned later that all email and text communications were intercepted by the FBI and NSA, supposedly for a period of six months surrounding the event. This was the opportunity for the folks at Homeland Security to try out all their new toys and gadgets, and they reveled in it.

Snowden is a complex character whose actions and story required more journalistic rigor than Poitras provides.

The 2002 Olympics became a gateway moment for justifying indiscriminate snooping in the name of national security. I couldn’t help but remember that experience while watching Citizenfour, the documentary based on interviews last year with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Snowden was an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, a company that provides technology and security services to civilian and government agencies, when he became alarmed by the scope of surveillance being conducted by the NSA. He decided to take the story public by stealing top-security documents and sharing them with two journalists of his choosing: documentarian Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald of the London Guardian.

Snowden has been called a patriot, a traitor, a dissident, a thief, a whistleblower, and even an accessory to the murder of those whose covers he blew when he revealed the contents of sensitive security documents. As I watched the film, all I could think of was the courage it took for this 29-year-old man to sacrifice his home, his family, and his relationships to warn you and me that Big Brother is watching and recording everything we say and write.

Poitras was nominated for an Academy Award for her 2006 documentary My Country, My Country. Being selected by Snowden to tell his story was quite a coup. However, while the story is certainly important, I was not impressed with her filmmaking. Basically we watch Snowden talking in a Hong Kong hotel room, and we see clips of Glenn Greenwald being interviewed on the cable news networks after his stories were published in theGuardian. Most of this we have seen before, and Snowden is in complete control of the interviews; Poitras does what he tells her to do and says what he wants her to hear. We never see her onscreen, but she enters the documentary through elaborate typing of their email conversations recreated with white Courier on a black screen.

Poitras doesn’t do any digging for this documentary, and she doesn’t reveal anything beyond what Snowden wants to say to the camera. She doesn’t tell us what was in the documents Snowden stole and made public, and she doesn’t interview anyone about the harm those revelations may have caused. She didn’t seek out individuals whose lives have been affected by indiscriminate surveillance — people, for example, who have been put on “watch lists” or denied travel visas because of an automated misinterpretation of something they’ve written in an email. She didn’t interview Snowden’s colleagues or parents or his longtime girlfriend, although she knew who and where the girlfriend was. Perhaps Poitras was worried about being charged under the Espionage Act herself, or perhaps it was just shoddy journalism; regardless, I found the documentary one-sided, incomplete, and full of the kind of technical jargon that suggests Snowden is either really really smart, or really really knows how to snow his audience. (Occasionally I felt as though I were listening to a Truther explain how Building Seven came down . . .)

Despite the gravity of the topic, Citizenfour is strangely unsatisfying and lacking in suspense. Yet there was plenty of suspense to be had: US authorities were trying desperately to find Snowden and extradite him here, before he could finish his interviews and secure asylum in another country; and undercover agents were scrambling to find safety as the contents of his documents were revealed.

She didn’t seek out individuals whose lives have been affected by indiscriminate surveillance — people, for example, who have been put on “watch lists” or denied travel visas.

According to Snowden, the NSA engages in sweeping, indiscriminate collection of all telephone and email transmissions and then uses automated language analysis programs to search for suspicious conversations or Google searches. The NSA was tapping directly into search engines such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, and others and making assumptions based on reports generated by automated analysis. (Think about this the next time you search to find out the schedule of Viola Davis’ new hit TV show, “How to Get Away with Murder.”)

Poitras includes some footage of congressional hearings about NSA snooping. Several other NSA employees turned whistleblower at the same time as Snowden, including William Binney, who sat down with documentarian Tricia Owen, just days before the Snowden story broke, for the short film Before Snowden: Behind the Curtain, which premiered at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival in July. Poitras also filmed a training meeting conducted by Jacob Appelbaum of Occupy Wall Street as background for Citizenfour. Watching Appelbaum explain to Occupiers how to avoid surveillance as they planned their sit-ins and protests, I thought of Voltaire’s famous line, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” — and to say it without being surveilled.

Citizenfour is important as a piece of history, but it is not a good documentary. Snowden is a complex character whose actions and story required more journalistic rigor than Poitras provides. She had a powerfully significant story dropped into her lap, but she let Snowden call all the shots. Patriot? Traitor? Martyr? Simple thief? We may never know the truth. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt is set to play Snowden in a biopic next year, and that film will of course have a point of view, determined by the bias of the filmmaker. Laura Poitras was the only one who had primary access to the actual source, and she blew it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Citizenfour," directed by Laura Poitras. Praxis Films, 2014, 114 minutes.



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The Pharaohs of the Current Dynasty

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The thing that interests me most about the intelligence scandals is the revelation of how amateurish the people who run our Great National Institutions seem to be.

I had assumed that the government was doing exactly what it has been revealed to be doing — getting everyone’s telephone records. I had assumed that any serious terrorist would assume the same. But if Edward Snowden was able to “reveal” the taking of this super-secret information, how many other people could reveal the same, or more?

Snowden is a badly educated young man who in his early twenties began a meteoric ascent through various spy agencies. Either the government’s secrets are so massive and take so many hands to manage, or the government is so ridiculously bad at contracting with people to take care of them, that the mighty inwards of the government’s self-knowledge end up in the grasp of Edward Snowden and the like. The same could be said, and more, about Bradley (Bradass87) Manning, who appears to have been put in a job where he dealt with military secrets because he was so outrageously unqualified for any other job.

Should I now mention some dramatis personae of other current scandals — Lois Lerner, Susan Rice, Kathleen Sebelius, Eric Holder? Qualified to handle secrets? They’re not even qualified to handle the secret of their own incompetence.

Now we have FBI Director Robert Swan Mueller, a 12-year veteran in his job, who received, a week in advance, a list of questions that he would be asked by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, but who on June 13 repeatedly assured Chaffetz’s congressional committee that he didn’t know anything about anything, finally apologizing, not very contritely, for failing to do his “homework.” Tell me, what else does the guy have to do?

If you’re like me, you grew up thinking of the FBI, the CIA, the NSA — anything with three initials — as a monument to strong organization. They were cunning; they were tricky; they might be malevolent; but they were tightly and cleverly administered. They were places where people who looked like David Niven, men who knew the world, subtly schemed to outwit their enemies. As for the US military, they were so hard-assed that they would never even consider hiring a person like me. And they still wouldn’t. But they trained Bradass87 as an intelligence analyst.

The image that now comes to mind is about as far from David Niven as you could get. It’s General James Clapper (USAF, rtd.), current director of national intelligence — the stereotyped representation of a befuddled, forehead-rubbing, double-talking academic bureaucrat, a man who doesn’t seem to understand what he himself is saying, much less understand the world. With people like this posing as pharaohs, what must the rest of the human pyramid be like?




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