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The Hollywood Idiom and the Case of Ed Snowden

The Hollywood Idiom and the Case of Ed Snowden

Robert Alpert   |   October 2018

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” –Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922)

Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015), a commercially successful, nonfiction work, clearly struck a contemporary chord. Harari argues that the dominance of the human species results from its ability to cooperate through the creation of myths, a cooperation that has today resulted in a nearly global culture. Cultures differ historically, according to Harari, only insofar as they differ in their mythologies, such as a belief in god (Christianity), money (capitalism) or human rights (liberalism). Yet Harari’s perspective is, of course, itself a myth, and underlying his argument is a secular, materialist view of life that is arguably imperialist in the scope of its grasp. The popularity of Harari’s Sapiens surely results from its enlightened, humanistic perspective in which the creation of a myth seemingly renders wholly comprehensible and within our grasp the body politic. Indeed, language readily becomes a tool for control in the rationalist’s arsenal.

Politics and ideology are, of course, routinely embedded in the words and sentence structures we choose for the stories we tell, and the expression of our stories, the language of a culture, represents an intangible value that defines and thereby limits the development of that same culture. Our experiences are not simply the sum of our sensory perceptions, and interpretation does not wholly exhaust – and is not a substitute for – the cultural artifacts themselves, including movies. Thus, movies about historically important events are inextricably intertwined within the broader mythologies of our culture and, in fact, often sadly demonstrate how, short of a revolutionary change, our understanding of even the most dramatic, widely reported events are circumscribed by the language of our contemporary movie idiom.i There is no clear line separating myth and the language of its creation.

The Edward Snowden story began on June 6, 2013, when The Guardian released a copy of a sealed Order marked “top secret” that the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had issued earlier that year. It directed that Verizon disclose on a daily basis to the National Security Agency (NSA) “all call detail records or ‘telephony metadata’” for the duration of the Order, excluding only wholly non-US metadata. During the next few days and continuing for months thereafter The Guardian and other mainstream media disclosed the NSA’s vast surveillance program, including the collection of data from private tech companies, such as Google and Facebook. Several days later, on June 9, 2013, The Guardian disclosed Snowden’s identity -– a 29-year old, former employee of an NSA contractor. The UK and the US governments immediately retaliated against these “leaks”. In the UK, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which had been deeply involved in the surveillance program, compelled The Guardian to destroy those electronic files that it had received from Snowden. The US government in the meantime indicted Snowden as a spy under its Espionage Act. While then President Obama publicly joked how he didn’t intend to scramble jets in order to capture a 29-year old “hacker”, the US government not only revoked Snowden’s passport, stranding him in Russia where he remains, but also then force landed in Austria, through the cooperation of several European governments, a plane carrying the Ecuadorian president. The US government had mistakenly believed that Snowden was on that plane.

Snowden’s story in its barest outline about massive government surveillance through the use of digital media is obviously dramatic, what with the disclosure of classified US government secrets as well as its high-level intrigue. Not surprisingly, two movies were soon released: Laura Poitras’ documentary Citizenfour (2014) and Oliver Stone’s fictional reenactment Snowden (2016). Both failed commercially. The failure of Stone’s movie was surely disappointing, considering its budget of about $40 million. Moreover, while Poitras’ movie received considerable critical praise, including an Academy Award for the Best Documentary Feature, and eventually turned a profit, considering its lowly budget of $1 million, its audience was also relatively small. Notwithstanding the seemingly “cinematic” elements of Snowden’s story, the limited appeal of both movies to attract a broad audience suggests the extent to which progressive change and growth are unlikely so long as language, our movie idiom, fails to move “beyond good and evil”2 as defined by the norms of Western culture and as reflected in the values of capitalism. These movies together serve as a warning on the limitations of Western culture to reform itself.


Consistent with his many earlier movies about historical subjects, ranging from the US war in Vietnam, Platoon (1986), to 9/11, World Trade Center (2006), Oliver Stone’s movie, Snowden, adopts a classical Hollywood approach to its story. On the one hand, it uses as a narrative “hook” Snowden’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) disclosures about the NSA in a Hong Kong hotel room to The Guardian reporters, Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) as well as to documentary film director Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo). It repeatedly returns to scenes in this hotel room, eventually depicting both the global publication by The Guardian of Snowden’s disclosures as well as his hurried flight from Hong Kong to Russia. Nevertheless, the film’s focus is on Snowden’s personal history, beginning with his stint as a recruit in the US Special Forces and ending with his consulting work for the CIA in Hawaii. Reenacting the religious allegory of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) in which a Christian traveler learns through his experiences, the film introduces Ed Snowden, in response to 9/11, as a believer in the need to “make a difference” by serving his country. Expressing disdain for the protesters to the war in Iraq, whose petition his liberal girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley) signs, Snowden develops during the film a more liberal, humanitarian persona as he is increasingly exposed to the deceptions of his conservative colleagues in the US government. The film’s symbols are everywhere and often obvious –

  • The portrait of President Kennedy hanging behind Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage), the disillusioned CIA officer whose career was ruined as a result of his questioning his superiors at the CIA;
  • The portrait of President Bush, the hunting with guns and the barbecuing of raw meat associated with Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), Snowden’s CIA boss; and
  • The naming of Snowden as “Snow White” as he’s about to eat the “poisoned apple,” namely his introduction to XKeyscore, the NSA’s omniscient surveillance program.

Moreover, a Rubik’s Cube, in particular, symbolizes Snowden’s progress during the course of the movie. Introduced in close-up at the beginning of the film as the means by which Snowden identifies himself to Greenwald and Poitras, symbolically he acquires the Rubik’s Cube from Forrester and later uses it to hide the electronic files that he secretly removes from the NSA/CIA station in Hawaii.


The movie is also a Pilgrim’s Progress for its audience. The gradual development of Snowden’s political enlightenment serves simultaneously to educate us. Snowden patiently and in detail explains to the uninitiated MacAskill, a Guardian reporter, the significance of the NSA information that is on a thumb drive. We view on a TV screen the real-life testimony of the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, that the NSA doesn’t routinely monitor the communications of US citizens, and Snowden then confronts his boss, O’Brian, on how Clapper’s testimony is plainly false. Snowden even explains to his professional colleagues in Hawaii for our benefit how the software that he’s developed shows that the NSA has collected 3 plus billion bits of information in the US but only 1.5 billion in Russia. That the US ostensibly engages in its surveillance in order to counter an axis of evil, China and Russia, underscores the film’s allusion to the fictional Eastasia and Euroasia, respectively, from Orwell’s celebrated novel 1984. Indeed, with the completion of the development of Snowden’s progressive politics and the audience’s enlightenment to the deceptive policies of the US government, the movie can hurry to its narrative conclusion, albeit in Russia. When an appreciative audience by remote applauds Snowden – both the actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt as well as the real-life Snowden – the Hollywood ending is complete. Emotionally satisfying, the movie has solved our problem by identifying the “good guys” and the “bad guys”.


Yet Snowden was both a commercial and critical failure. In depicting Snowden’s story with its startling revelations about government surveillance, the movie fails to engage its audience in a conversation. For those already convinced that the US government has used 9/11 as a pretext with which to exert greater control, Snowden adds nothing. For those not so convinced, Snowden conveys its message through the Hollywood paradigm in which there are “good guys” and “bad guys” and the former need only jail the latter to solve the problem. There is no cultural value that needs addressing. Typical is the depiction of Snowden’s CIA boss, O’Brian, whose name evokes O’Brien, the boss of Winston Smith, the defeated hero of 1984. He’s plainly a loathsome character, deceiving and then applying “pressure points” to Snowden, including through the CIA’s monitoring of Lindsay’s personal communications. Yet the obviously exaggerated portrait of O’Brien, such as his threatening appearance on a giant screen, renders him more a villainous character than a reflection of a morally questionable political system in which Snowden’s experience is but one example. Likewise, Snowden’s immediate supervisor at the Hawaii facility, Trevor James (Scott Eastwood, son of actor-director Clint Eastwood), is a caricature of the intellectually limited, gung-ho patriot that Snowden must educate (together with the audience) about how the CIA’s actions violate the Nuremberg Principles. Even the movie’s personalizing of the consequences of government surveillance, such as the scene in which Snowden realizes to his horror that the government may be spying upon him and Lindsay through his open laptop, likewise fails to engage the broader cultural issue of privacy. Our identification remains with these particular characters, and they are clearly fictional recreations. This is a Hollywood genre movie, namely an historical biography or “biopic” which at best entertains.

Not surprisingly, Stone often self-consciously – and condescendingly – identifies in his movie recreation of the Snowden story the very mythology that Hollywood has created for our entertainment. For example, after Snowden has downloaded onto a thumb drive the government’s surveillance data, his CIA colleague at the Hawaiian facility, referring to their supervisor James, sarcastically asks, “You gonna leave me here with Captain America?” Tellingly, too, Stone has observed of Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal of Snowden, “There’s an interesting blandness…in the same way that Jimmy Stewart might’ve been considered bland. There’s a neutrality there, which allows him to grow on you.”3 While ostensibly critiquing a system that has enabled the US government’s massive invasion of the privacy of its own citizens, Snowden embraces its Hollywood mythology. The myth-making apparatus of Hollywood entertainment, including its iconic star system, consistently advocates the sufficiency of the heroic individual, whether Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith battling government corruption in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) or Chris Evans as Steve Rogers a/k/a Captain America defeating the algorithms of government in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). The movie’s “dramatization of actual events that occurred between 2004 and in 2013,” as a title card announces, adopts wholesale that mythology of “good and evil” and as such distances its audience from the “actual events”. The movie instead reinforces the Hollywood idiom with its fictional recreations as well as reaffirms the myth of contemporary capitalism – the triumph of the individual in a supposedly free-market system.

Interestingly, the movie Sully (2016) was released in the US almost simultaneously with Snowden. Directed by the libertarian Clint Eastwood, Sully resembles Snowden in many ways, including how both

  • Begin with a title card that assures us that the biopic that we’re about to watch is based on “actual events”;
  • Are structured around a single event (the Hong Kong hotel meeting in Snowden and a plane landing on NYC’s Hudson River in Sully) interspersed with scenes depicting the central character’s personal history;
  • Distinguish between the private person, who unexpectedly becomes a hero, and the public persona displayed on huge video billboards;
  • Identify 9/11 as central to the film’s emotional trajectory – the motivation for Snowden’s initial enlistment in Snowden and the emotional, cathartic public relief resulting from the successful flight path over the Hudson taken by Captain Chesley Sullenberger (or “Sully,” played by Tom Hanks) in Sully; and
  • End with a blurring of fiction and the actual events – in Snowden the image of Joseph Gordon-Levitt unexpectedly transformed into that of Edward Snowden speaking live in Russia and in Sully the unexpected announcement over the end credits that “this is your captain speaking” and the appearance of the real-life Sully mingling in an airline hanger with the real-life passengers who identify themselves by their seat numbers.

Yet while Eastwood’s film enacts many of the same narrative elements as Snowden, Sully openly revels in validating its myths and thereby entertains its audience for the duration of the movie so that it may enjoy – and escape from the anxiety caused by – the actual events dramatized on the screen. Not surprisingly, where Snowden failed, Sully succeeded both commercially and critically.


Sully is a Clint Eastwood movie, openly underscored by the Gran Torino billboard as Sully runs through Times Square. Thus, it treats its audience to yet another reenactment of the US myth of the lone, patriarchal professional who sets things right. Like the outsider portrayed by Eastwood in a series of westerns – Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti” westerns, such as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) or Eastwood’s variations on them, such as Pale Rider (1985) – or in Eastwood’s contemporary versions of such westerns – such as Absolute Power (1997) – Sully represents the classic male, Western hero. He successfully defeats the government bureaucracy, in this case, the National Transportation Safety Board or NTSB, whose hearing, as many have noted, is largely a fiction to create a source of conflict and further our identification with its hero, Sully. While acknowledging the flight crew’s team work along with the contributions of others, such as the passengers and rescue workers, the film makes clear that Sully with his “208 seconds” of decision-making was decisively responsible for this “miracle on the Hudson.” While acknowledging the role of Sully’s co-pilot, the film depicts Sully as the consummate loner, a professional good at his job. Like Eastwood, Tom Hanks, who portrays Sully, has aged but remains an American icon, a contemporary Jimmy Stewart who represents male decency in the face of social corruption. Thus, where Snowden mocks the exaggerated heroics of Captain America, Sully comforts us with a suspension of belief and endorses the fantasy of the heroic individual, Hollywood’s iconic Tom Hanks.

Of course, there is an inherent contradiction in such mythmaking, as reflected in what is surely the film’s oddest scene, namely the NTSB’s hearing during which Sully successfully challenges the NTSB’s computer simulations. On the one hand, Sully insists upon introducing “the human factor” to a freak event for which no one could have planned. He successfully insists on introducing 35 seconds into the simulations to account for the reactive time of human pilots. As a result, the simulations fail. We then listen to and watch what “actually” occurred. Sully reacts to the unexpected events unfolding by ignoring the repeated computer warnings and triumphantly lands the aircraft safely on the Hudson River. The “human factor” is restored. “That was extraordinary,” says the NTSB chair,4 and co-pilot Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) replies, “That was no simulation.” The myth is vindicated. Notwithstanding, the entire film, especially the NTSB hearing, consists of simulations. The film’s reenactment of the “miracle on the Hudson” is no less a simulation than the NTSB’s computer generated simulations that the film ostensibly attacks. We watch Sully with his co-pilot in a simulated cockpit cabin, with views of NY and NJ through simulated windows, and these shots are repeatedly intercut with simulated recreations of the aircraft swerving in the air over the Hudson – up close, from behind, in front and from the side – and descending ever closer to the Hudson. This is a carefully scripted and edited Hollywood movie that relies upon CGI, and it employs its simulations to reinforce the film’s simulated mythology even as it supposedly advocates the non-simulated reality of “actual events”. Ironically, by allowing for a 35-second response time so as to introduce the “human factor”, the film underscores how the artificial intelligence of a high-speed computer could readily have succeeded where Sully failed, namely land the aircraft safely at a nearby airport. Sully’s mythology depends upon an artificial recreation by digital technology, and the film deceives its passive audience into accepting the traditional mythology even as its means of productions tells a different story.


In adopting Hollywood’s idiom in order to tell the story of Ed Snowden, Stone in Snowden, like Eastwood’s Sully, adopts and reinforces the simulated myth of the heroic individual and thereby undercuts the movie’s supposedly well-meaning message about the corrosive effect of Western capitalism. The difference is that Sully simultaneously, if cynically, openly endorses capitalism’s reliance on digital technology as a means to enhance the substitution of simulation for actual events. That Eastwood apparently treats his actors, including Tom Hanks, “like horses”5 arguably finds its equivalent in Stone’s decision to continue shooting abroad in the spring of 2015 when his 93-year old mother was dying, because it “would have cost us three down days. I knew she was going to pass, but I thought I could make it.” He didn’t.6 This calculated separation between methodology and a well-meaning intent inevitably results in the failure of intent. The stories we tell in movies reflect the off-screen reality of their production. Language is inseparable from content. Snowden’s failure, both commercial and critical, reflects that dissonance. Where Eastwood in Sully is consistent in both idiom and intent, Snowden represents a triumph of the Hollywood idiom, and the movie’s failure results from the dissonance between that idiom and its maker’s seeming intent.

In contrast, Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour keeps Hollywood storytelling to a minimum and instead embraces the limitations of recording what’s on-screen while simultaneously documenting, to the extent possible, what’s off-screen. Significantly, Poitras records Snowden’s decision to identify himself as the whistle blower in the following, unscripted exchange:

Edward Snowden: I feel the modern media has a big focus on personalities.
Ewen MacAskill: Totally.
Edward Snowden: And I’m a little concerned that the more we focus on that the more they’re going to use that as a distraction. I don’t necessarily want that to happen, which is why I’ve consistently said, you know, I’m not the story here.

In enacting the myth of the heroic individual, the whistleblower, in a monolithic, corporate world, Snowden obscures the broader social perspective that Snowden had revealed and thereby reinforces the empowerment of those whom the film seemingly critiques. Stone’s idiosyncratic portrait of these characters – the comforting Poitras, the overly cold, emotionally unsympathetic Greenwald, and the clueless MacAskill – makes the story more accessible but thereby distorts its potential cultural meaning. In contrast, Poitras, Greenwald and MacAskill in Citizenfour are simply bit players in a larger historical drama. They are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of a drama who refuse to do the bidding of a corrupt royalty.


Thus, where Stone, the omniscient voice of Snowden, structures his story around Snowden’s disclosures in Hong Kong and its backstory, Poitras inserts these disclosures as part of an unfinished story in which she as well as others, including Snowden, are participants. Just as Snowden’s participation in the completed film is limited by Poitras’ limitations as a filmmaker in real time, her film likewise remains incomplete and a work in progress. It opens with Poitras’ identification of Citizenfour as the third in a trilogy of documentaries about the US post 9/11. The other two were My Country, My Country (2006) – about Iraqi life under US occupation – and The Oath (2010) – about Guantanamo Bay and the war on terror. As though continuing that conversation, Citizenfour focuses initially on events seemingly unrelated to Snowden, such as William Binney’s testimony (the subject of Poitras’ 2012 short documentary The Program), the construction of the NSA’s massive new facility in Utah (which Poitras began filming at the beginning of its construction in 2011), the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and James Clapper’s testimony before Congress in 2013. While the film thereafter focuses upon Snowden’s meeting in a Hong Kong hotel room with Poitras, Greenwald and MacAskill, the resulting global publicity, and Snowden’s eventual escape from Hong Kong to Russia, it continually shows us off-screen, random spaces and events. For example, as Poitras records what’s before her, her image unexpectedly appears in a mirror. There are repeatedly random shots of the glass-clad hotel in which the meeting is taking place. A hotel fire alarm unexpectedly rings to everyone’s consternation. Snowden without warning pulls over his head a red blanket in order to hide his security codes from Poitras’ recording camera. The repetitive, medium distance shots of Snowden suddenly give way to a series of close ups of Snowden and Greenwald discussing Snowden’s decision to reveal his identity as the whistleblower. The camera unexpectedly focuses on Snowden meticulously dressing up his hair as he’s about to leave the hotel after he’s gone public. In short, the film often seems somewhat directionless and out of control.

In a film that on occasion allows time and space to unfold apparently at random and records events as moments in a seeming continuum of uncategorized history, the meeting in Hong Kong occupies, not surprisingly, only the middle hour of a two-hour film. While Citizenfour, like Snowden, hurriedly documents the days following the public disclosures that are broadcast both on the television set in Snowden’s room as well as on the giant video screens overlooking the streets of Hong Kong, off-screen events not within the participants’ control determine the film’s direction. With Poitras now fearful that the US government is following her and Greenwald concerned about the personal consequences of his assisting Snowden go public, the film shifts its focus. It alternates repeatedly between Berlin, where Poitras has fled, and Rio de Janeiro, where Greenwald resides. In Berlin lawyers meet to discuss whether Snowden has any defenses to his criminal indictment under the US Espionage Act – he doesn’t; in nearby Brussels, the EU investigates the NSA’s spying upon its supposed European allies; and William Binney reappears in order to testify before the German Parliament. Meanwhile in Rio de Janeiro Greenwald speaks first to O Globo news reporters and later at a media conference. The film is inconclusive in its ending – a long shot of Snowden and his girlfriend Laura cooking together in their Russian apartment followed by another, brief meeting between Snowden and Greenwald, with Poitras continuing to record. There’s a series of close ups of Snowden and Greenwald coyly scratching notes on a small piece of paper, which they then tear up and sweep away. If we look carefully, we can see the deep circles under Snowden’s eyes. While claiming that going public has freed him from the fear of unknown consequences, Snowden appears simply exhausted. There’s no emotional catharsis. Instead, Citizenfour just ends, raising questions that it never adequately answers.


In contrast to the tightly constructed Hollywood narratives of Snowden and Sully, Citizenfour requires that its audience work at understanding what’s being said. We need to be aware of off-screen events if we are to understand the meaning of what’s before us, including its political significance. For example, Poitras tells us in passing that she was placed on a watch list and hence moved to Berlin. Knowing that her 2006 film My Country, My Country was about the US occupation of Iraq and had resulted in the US government’s “flagging” her as a security risk7 informs how we react to the post-Hong Kong events depicted in Europe. Citizenfour shows us James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, testifying unequivocally under oath before Congress in response to the question as to whether the NSA collects “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans,” “No sir. Not wittingly.” If we know that James Clapper suffered no consequence for his perjury before Congress,8 will we ask ourselves whether Snowden’s indictment for treason resulted from his violation of the law or instead from the politics that seeks to suppress dissent? While the movie seeks to persuade, it seems equally intent on recording events as part of an historical process and leaving for its audience, to the extent possible, to interpret and understand those events.

Indeed, Poitras has acknowledged the “strange experience” in both recording her interviews of Snowden and the nearly instantaneous creation of a global news event.9 Where, for example, Snowden conjures the telescreens of the fictional 1984 through the enlarged image of O’Brian, Citizenfour requires that the viewer, along with Poitras, Snowden and the other participants, intuit on his or her own that Orwellian world through the many conversations about the NSA’s surveillance programs. Citizenfour is hardly exhaustive in its depiction of events. Snowden’s voluminous disclosures about global surveillance are only explained in detail in Greenwald’s later-published book No Place to Hide (2014). Is there a villain in Citizenfour? If so, who is the villain? The US government? Large corporations? Or Western capitalist culture with its need for and promotion of a myth of villains and heroes? Citizenfour does not answer these questions. It’s enough to pose them and insist that the viewer ponder both the questions and their possible answers. While some may reject wholesale the significance of Snowden’s disclosures,10 Citizenfour is the kind of filmmaking demands that its viewers engage personally, along with Poitras and others, and actively try to understand our culture.

Like Snowden, however, Citizenfour failed commercially. Where Snowden and Sully differed in their political leanings – leftist as opposed to libertarian – but coincided in their adoption of the Hollywood idiom with its myth of the triumphant, heroic individual, Citizenfour rejects that paradigm and instead tries to engage its audience in a conversation. Sadly, in Western culture film is too often simply another form of passive entertainment rather than an active conversation between equals. Other filmmakers of similar intentions have had mixed success in their efforts at attracting an audience. These include, for example, Richard Linklater’s Sunset trilogy (1995, 2004, 2013) and Boyhood (2014), which simultaneously fictionalize and document, thereby critiquing the adequacy of the Hollywood idiom, or Sarah Polley’s loosely combined fictional and nonfictional narrative in The Stories We Tell (2012), which underscores the artifice of our storytelling. In a show titled “Government Surveillance,” John Oliver interviewed Ed Snowden in 2015 and satirically depicted how US citizens seemingly didn’t understand Snowden’s disclosures unless couched in wholly personal terms, namely that the NSA was collecting and sharing pictures of them naked – “dick pix”. The most dystopian aspect of Snowden’s disclosures may be that John Oliver was correct. The vast majority of audience members may care only if their “dick pix” are disclosed. Thus, movies will remain a form of entertainment understood through a Hollywood idiom that continues only to enhance our personal pleasures within a system freely chosen but not of our own creation. Recalling Harari’s myth-creation myth, it’s at best a system that partakes of both liberalism and capitalism but too often remains inhuman in its imperialist grasp.

Having described the camera’s ability to photographically reproduce and hence “mummify” objects through duration, Andre Bazin famously distinguished between “those directors who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality.”11 The digital media highlight that distinction, and viewers often no longer know how to watch or read other than through a wholly mediated, digital reality. While, however, Bazin premised his distinction based on his religious beliefs, there is also a political dimension. The adoption of technology is not politically neutral. As Herbert Marcuse observed decades ago, technology facilitates cultural domination, and technology “absorbs all spheres of culture.”12 That remains true today. Technology through digital media facilitates political control, increasingly blurring, for example, the distinction between our public and private selves. Film language in the form of the Hollywood idiom is now the same globally. And as Wittgenstein observed, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

It is not that Snowden is a poor movie in achieving its supposed purpose, that Sully is a good one in that it satisfies the emotional needs of its audience and that Citizenfour is a great movie in that it both makes its audience work as well as embodies a progressive view of history. Rather, taken together these movies demonstrate that we are increasingly imprisoned within the idiom of Hollywood, the language of our digital culture, and thereby the values of contemporary Western culture. Ed Snowden in Poitras’ initial interview, a portion of which is depicted in Citizenfour, observed, “The greatest fear…is that nothing will change…. And [eventually] it will be turnkey tyranny.” Taken together, these films serve as warning of how we are fast approaching a “turnkey tyranny.” This is the implicit, most dystopian vision of Citizenfour.

Robert Stanley, The Movie Idiom (Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, 2011), xiv – xv (discussing “movie idiom” as “the standard against which competing modes of filmmaking must contend”)


This cry for escaping cultural norms finds its most well known expression in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4363/4363-h/4363-h.htm.


Irina Aleksander, “Edward Snowden’s Long, Strange Journey to Hollywood,” The New York Times Magazine, Aug. 30, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/04/magazine/edward-snowdens-long-strange-journey-to-hollywood.html?_r=0.


As usual, Eastwood expresses his greatest hostility toward professional women who have the temerity to suggest that they’re equal to professional men. Thus, while the male chair acknowledges the extraordinary feat that he’s heard and is accepted for doing so, another member of the NTSB, Dr. Elizabeth Davis (Anna Gunn), is consistently depicted throughout the investigation as unfair. Moreover, even as the film attacks her “personal note” of acknowledgement to Sully for its failure to observe that the “miracle” consisted of a team effort, the film also endorses the truth of what she has said. That she’s a woman is enough to condemn her for anything that she says.


Catherine Shoard, “Tom Hanks: Clint Eastwood ‘treats actors like horses’” The Guardian, November 25, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/nov/25/tom-hanks-clint-eastwood-treats-actors-like-horses.


Irina Aleksander, “Edward Snowden’s Long, Strange Journey to Hollywood.”


How Poitras came to filmmaking focused on 9/11, how filmmaking in Iraq resulted in her placement on a US government “watch list” and how she came to believe that the US government was also monitoring her online activities are explained in Peter Maass, “How Laura Poitras Helped Snowden Spill His Secrets,” The New York Times Magazine, August 13, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/18/magazine/laura-poitras-snowden.html?pagewanted=all.


Following Snowden’s disclosures, Clapper apologized to Congress in a letter dated June 21, 2013, in which he acknowledged his “clear error” based on his misunderstanding of the question posed by US Senator Wyden. After noting his long-term service and many appearances before Congress, he concluded, “But mistakes will happen, and when I make one, I correct it.” No indictment for perjury ever issued. Compare, too, the fate of David H. Petraeus, a highly decorated four-star general in the US Army who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and later was head of the CIA. He disclosed classified information, in particular, handwritten notes of US Presidential meetings in which the names of covert operators and other secrets were set forth, to his mistress who was then writing his biography. After resigning as director of the CIA at the recommendation of his boss, James Clapper, Patraeus received a plea bargain agreement, resulting in his conviction of a misdemeanor and no jail time.


Peter Maass, “How Laura Poitras Helped Snowden Spill His Secrets.”


10 See, for example, Fred Kaplan, “Sins of Omission”, Slate, October 16, 2014, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/war_stories/2014/10/citizenfour_review_laura_poitras_edward_snowden_documentary.html. Kaplan distinguishes Snowden from prior whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, criticizes Snowden for disclosing to journalists voluminous classified documents, expresses surprise that anyone would be surprised that the US government engages in foreign surveillance (that’s supposedly been found effective), and criticizes Poitras for omitting unfavorable aspects of Snowden’s odyssey (such as his press conference in Russia in which he praised Russia) as well as for the tedium of her film following the scenes in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, Kaplan concludes:


“[P]otential abuse is a legitimate concern. Imagine if these programs had been around when Richard Nixon was president or J. Edgar Hoover was FBI director. The violations of civil liberties, which were eye-opening enough (when they were later revealed), might have been very oppressive.


That’s one warning worth taking from Snowden’s disclosures. I wish that he’d left them at that.”


11 Andre Bazin, What is Cinema? Trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: U. of Ca. Press, 1967), 24.


12 Marcuse wrote in his chapter on “technological rationality”:

In a paradoxical development, the scientific efforts to establish the rigid objectivity of nature led to an increasing de-materialization of nature… While science freed nature from inherent ends and stripped matter of all but quantifiable qualities, society freed men from the ‘natural’ hierarchy of personal dependence and related them to each other in accordance with quantifiable qualities – namely, as units of abstract labor power, calculable in units of time…Today, domination perpetuates and extends itself not only through technology but as technology, and the latter provides the great legitimation of the expanding political power, which absorbs all spheres of culture.


Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon Press Boston, 1964), 156 – 158.

Robert Alpert

Contributing Writer

Robert Alpert teaches movies and media, with a focus on cultural myths, AI and digital media, at Fordham University and Hunter College in NYC as well as writes for several film journals. He was many years a practicing attorney in the area of intellectual property law at a boutique firm and later at a large, multi-national law firm.

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