Citizen Four


John Fraim


The documentary film Citizen Four on Edward Snowden is about the greatest threat to American freedom today: the gathering of private information on citizens. The NSA branch of the government casts the widest net in history over private information of Americans and making it all subject to being harvested and then put into meta-data profiles on individuals much more definitive about an individual than anything Freud came up with on the couch.

Of course the government provides the familiar claim that collection of privacy information on Americans is needed for their protection from the foreign terrorists, in large part, it seems to this writer, the government has helped create. In this sense, all Americans should have an interest from protection from terror because it can strike (with no discrimination) to the rich and the poor. The Republicans and the Democrats. Perhaps somewhat like non-discrimination current disease called Ebola.

Yet, Citizen Four and the revelations of Edward Snowden rejects the government reason and shows collection of information by the NSA is not for the protection of American citizens but rather the protection of the current American government. If one can accept this perspective, it is not a jump to view the government (whether Republican or Democratic) as wanting to have access to the data of the NSA in order to control questions from the citizens about it.

Here is a political rub to the “democratic” collection of information on American citizens. While information might equally be collected on all Americans, it is certainly applied to different groups in different ways. Those citizens in culture identified with the ruling political party in the nation’s two-party system create the government in control. It is a logical contention that citizens within the party in control of American government will have less collected information used against them than those who threaten the controlling government of the nation. In the film Citizen Four, we learn how broad is the power of the government to use information against its citizens by America still following the Espionage Act from WWI.

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It should not be any great surprise to an America who gives a few seconds of thought to the matter: those who threaten control of the government are more likely to have meta-data “harvested” and applied against them in various ways to silence their voice in culture. This seems a logical conclusion for information use given the amount of information the government contains on the particular person. A much more valuable purposeful use of the information is not in the protection of Americans but rather the protection of the government in power in America. Information can be used against any person that questions government policy in Ferguson, in Ebola ridden Africa, in the Middle East, or against the rampage of ISIS. Or, at a local PTA meeting in a small town in North Dakota.

Through modern marketing methods such as PRIZM developed for direct marketing in the 80s and Madison Avenue’s evolving marketing methods, NSA has direct connections to that invention of America called advertising and advertising research. In effect, in marketing terms, those who are against the current regime in power in America are the “target markets” for the controlling party of government. How is the electronic data of this particular “target market” to be analyzed? And then used against them in creating messages to the rest of the citizens in America? Assume either political party is in power. Does it really matter when the controlling party can apply NSA data against members of the opposing party? Against the major members of the opposing party? The national leaders? The state leaders? The city leaders? The neighborhood leaders? The family leaders? The individual leaders?

The group above “writes” their lives on the NSA’s digital canvas and NSA uses it against them. The marketing profession might say that certain psychographics and demographics of the population are the demonstrated “target market” against which NSA information is to be utilized. All Americans have digital footprints in cyberspace. But, certain individuals have greater digital footprints. Do these “greater” footprint people represent dissenters to the government? Those with greater income? A certain group?

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NSA Data Center

NSA Data Center in Utah

The subject is the most important issue for America to deal with in the contemporary world. Unlike almost all the other huge problems in our nation, it underlies all of them. Unlike the other crises in the nation right now (and there are many) importantly, it is not pegged to a geographical location. It is not a crisis in the Middle East with ISIS. It is not a crisis in Oklahoma with Ferguson. It is not a crisis on our southern borders with immigration. It is not a crisis in Africa called Ebola.

Information gathering by the NSA cannot be pegged to a geographic location because it happens in all geographic locations. The Middle East. Ferguson. Africa. It is everywhere. And, it does not have the trajectory of the “normal” crisis today that springs up like a baseball hit hard to center field only to drop down. It is not a manufactured crisis like so many others are.

The modern method of control of the populace is more through distraction than compulsion. The Twentieth Century was a century of compulsion. But our 21st Century is one of control by distraction. In this modern evolution of the methods for control of a government over its people, distraction becomes a key weapon. The ruling government should never go directly against its opposition. It first needs to distract this opposition into all sorts of various crises (Ferguson, border, ISIS, Ebola, IRS, Obama care) as well as the sports programming and programming of popular culture’s music, movies and stories. FaceBooks. Twitter. Cell phones.

Aldous Huxley said it well in his Preface to A Brave New World, “In regard to propaganda the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or it might be false. They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies – the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

In the end, after seeing the brilliant documentary Citizen Four, it becomes blaringly apparent that all of this other stuff, as bad as it might be, is mere distractions away from the greatest story in our lifetime that relates to our freedom as citizens: the collection of information on all of us, indiscriminately.

The film Citizen Four is a film about the most important topic facing all Americans today. Citizens should be represented by a government. Yet today, they are increasingly controlled by it. Information is the key element. Everything else today, Ebola, Ferguson, the Middle East, are mere distractions from this key fact that current American government maintains control by collecting and using information against dissenters to the controlling government (party) collecting the data.

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Apart from its most important topic, the film is a brilliant example of how a documentary film should be made. The cinematic eye seems to always capture a stark reality of what it was like to be Edward Snowden when he first came forward with the information about NSA in the Hong Kong hotel room. The footage of Snowden in the hotel room is some of the most brilliant I’ve ever seen.

One of the key stylistic methods in the film is to attempt to be an impartial observer. Somewhat, perhaps like Nick Carraway in the Great Gatsby. The film offers both an incredible close up of Edward Snowden but, at the same time, always staying in the back a little, as a third person observer to the historic things going on in front of its camera in the Hong Kong hotel room.

Perhaps some of the bravest reporters ever captured on film. It seems to me, much braver than those of Water Gate fame. Here, they were against something so much more powerful than another political party. Rather, something that had grown beyond particular political parties.

The brilliant documentary allows just enough image to let the symbolism of the point in time sink in. Chinese watch the image of Snowden on this huge screen in Hong Kong. Snowden types things into his laptop while the TV in the room broadcasts his story all over the world. The last scene is perhaps one of the most thought-provoking scenes in the history of film. Not some scenario dreamt up by another Hollywood screenwriter. But rather this is something amazingly real. Edward Snowden reads a number of pieces of paper that the journalist who has broken his story to the world writes to him in his apartment. He dare not say them out loud.

We can see that Snowden is shocked at the implications. But he does not say anything. We see some familiar letters in one of the notes. It is one of the most powerful last scenes in all of cinema. But then, this is not just cinema but a member of our young generation staring the future in the face. He had been a brave warrior so far. His face and demeanor fixed with a powerful determination against this great spying power directed at the American citizens.

But the information that his journalist friend writes to him in that hotel room at the end of the film. This information scares even Snowden. For the first time in the film, there is a frightened look on his face. What is on the paper reporter Greenwald gives to Snowden? It is left for the viewer to speculate. Really, it is something for all Americans to speculate on.






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