7 05 2017

One must balance principles with pragmatism if the former is to survive intense scrutiny, opines Julian Assange at the start of Laura Poitras’ “Risk,” a documentary with unprecedented access to the WikiLeaks founder at the height of his early ’10s infamy. It’s an ironic, fitting statement from a man who sees much of his work for international transparency eclipsed by charges of sexual assault. Rather than applying the principles of radical openness to his own life, Assange embarks on a scorched earth campaign to shift blame onto his accusers rather than accept any personal responsibility.

Poitras casts a suspicious eye towards Assange’s behavior, a stance likely influenced by allegations of sexual harassment and abuse leveled against fellow “hacktivist” Jacob Appelbaum after their brief affair ended. Appelbaum features prominently in both “Citizenfour” and the opening chapters of “Risk,” and the impassioned, largely unfiltered speeches he gives railing against online censorship demonstrates some form of support for the ideas. But can we excuse abusive behavior in men whose core ideas and values we primarily support? (It’s not exclusively a male problem, though cultural and institutional sexism tend to relegate these unchecked ego issues to a single gender.)

Poitras’ film bears the marks of intense internal deliberation in its very fiber; the version of “Risk” most audiences will experience differs dramatically from the version initially presented at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It’s a gripping examination of the double-edged sword forged by the cult of personality. On the one hand, complex dialectic struggles between freedom and control on personal and international scales become much more comprehensible when distilled into a human essence. Assange. Snowden. Appelbaum. They move these theoretical issues into the realm of the real by giving them a face. Yet people are complicated, and they lack consistency. Anything less than perfect representation of an ideology seemingly grants permission to throw the baby out with the bathwater in this day and age.

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REVIEW: Snowden

14 09 2016

At 69 years old, Oliver Stone isn’t likely to change his filmmaking style, but a little bit of uncommon subtlety might have behooved his latest work, “Snowden.” So often is the director determined to write the first rough draft of cinematic history on a current event – Vietnam, the Bush administration, the 2008 recession – that he sacrifices insight for topicality.

His take on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden doubles as a discussion about the trade-offs between privacy and security in the digital age. When he’s not blaring the themes through dialogue in lines such as “terrorism is the excuse; it’s about economic and social control,” the talking heads trade lines that sound excerpted from TED Talks. Moreover, the dust is still settling here. Why remake Laura Poitras’ perfectly good documentary “Citizenfour” with flashbacks when the story is still unfolding?

The film’s background information on Edward Snowden, largely left out of news media discussion, does provide some intriguing context to his giant revelation. His participation in questionably legal CIA operations, bipartisan disenchantment and operational disillusionment all played a big role in leading Snowden to rendezvous with Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald in June 2013. To Stone’s credit, he lets these events slowly form the character’s resolve to leak information; no one moment seems to snap him.

As Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers a turn that belongs on the Wikipedia page for “uncanny valley.” He channels the familiar real-life figure in many surprising ways: a deeper voice, a less frenetic pace, a quiet resolve. The only thing that stands in his way is the repository of ideas we have about Joseph Gordon-Levitt, which he automatically taps into by appearing on screen.

Between “Snowden,” “The Walk” and even going back to “Looper,” Gordon-Levitt has amassed an impressive body of work where he selflessly attempts to bring himself closer to the character, rather than the other way around. He’s busting his hump to ensure we see the role he plays as someone distinct from himself, not just some costume he puts on to slightly mask his own persona. Frequently, Gordon-Levitt’s reckoning with the character of Snowden feels more fascinating than the character himself. B2halfstars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 15, 2015)

15 01 2015

Layout 1In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, the world once again finds itself in a place of anger and fear towards the Islamic faith because of a few violent radicals.  So often, the media tends to “otherize” these jihadists, completely denying them any shred of humanity because of their barbaric acts.  Needless to say, any detailed attempt to actually understand why they do these things is totally off the table.

Thank goodness, though, for documentarians like Laura Poitras (who now seems almost destined to win the Oscar for her courageous and journalistic “Citizenfour“).  She dares to search inside the hearts and minds of the people often made out to be the enemy, simply portraying them for who they are without taking a judgmental stance.  Her second feature, “The Oath,” takes a long look at al-Qaeda operatists in Yemen.

Watching the film does not require sympathy with the terrorists.  Poitras simply asks that they not be deemed savages without hearing their worldview.  “The Oath” is my choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” for the way it puts a human face on jihadists and Islamic fundamentalists, going beyond their violent suicide attacks.  Possessing an understanding of them based in knowledge rather than in fear and hatred can only elevate policy discussion, right?

Poitras focuses most of her attention on Nasser Al-Bahri, also known as Abu Jandal.  By day, Abu Jandal is a taxi driver in San’a.  Off the streets, however, he trains the next generation of jihadists.  As he explains, “We don’t need everyone working in TNT and C4,” and his gift of switching the primacy of mens’ paths from men to Allah makes him too valuable an asset to sacrifice.  He spreads awareness of why al Qaeda attacked, yet he is no longer actively involved in the prior planning or subsequent justifying of such attacks.

Abu Jandal is decidedly against America and the West, but Poitras does not hesitate the highlight the complexities of his background and character.  Prior to the events shown in the film, Abu Jandal had served as a bodyguard to Osama bin Laden himself.  Yet when he saw the events of 9/11, he reacted with shock and dismay.  Imprisoned at the time, Abu Jandal decided to share his knowledge with the American authorities and provided enough valuable intelligence to justify delaying an invasion of Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Poitras also details the trial of Abu Jandal’s former companion, Salim Hamdan, who faces trial of questionable ethics in Guantanamo.  These scenes are colder and less intimate than the main narrative, playing like a classic political exposé documentary.  Nonetheless, the storylines still pair well with each other.

In “The Oath,” the subjects are neither lionized nor demonized.  Poitras simply allows to speak freely and openly about their beliefs without having to assume a defensive tone.  This is an opportunity to learn and listen like few others ever presented.

REVIEW: Citizenfour

24 11 2014

Citizenfour“I love my country but fear my government” is the kind of trite maxim that mostly belongs on bumper stickers, yet it ought to express the reaction of any sane American to watching Laura Poitras’ exceptional documentary “Citizenfour.”  In her able balancing of both the conveyance of dense, important information with the telling of a personal, human narrative, she exemplifies all the best that cinema can offer as a platform for journalism.

“Citizenfour” does not merely provide an ex post facto documentation of the events; its production is deeply embedded in the unfolding of the events themselves.  Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, her print media colleague, were the first points of contact for the mysterious Citizenfour.  This mysterious whistleblower reached out to them in early 2013 through sporadic, encrypted communication.  He only hinted at a trove of explosive information in his possession, telling them little other than that the information would be worth their time.

When they traveled to Hong Kong to rendezvous with their informant, the duo had no idea that these documents would reveal massive illegal NSA domestic surveillance programs that were kept off the books.  After some careful maneuvering, they meet the source – Edward Snowden (who actually prefers to go by “Ed”).  His identity comes as no surprise, though his words and what they reveal about his personality and motivations provides a gripping, enlightening watch.

While Poitras is intimately involved with the events she portrays, her “Citizenfour” manages to keep a healthy distance away from the proceedings.  Even with her relative neutrality, the film both engrosses and enrages.  As she unspools the story behind the story, Poitras also manages to provide the most in-depth portrait of Snowden.  Clad in plained-colored T-shirts, he speaks of a convincing candor and conscience as he relays sophisticated technical knowledge into intelligible terms.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (October 31, 2014)

31 10 2014

My Country My Country

Despite what the N.R.A. might tell you about the upcoming midterm elections (“your safety depends on it”) or even Democratic Super PACs (“if you want to prevent another Ferguson”), there is relatively little danger or risk in a single vote here in America.  A voter, or even a bloc of voters, sitting out will a fairly small impact on the direction of the country.

But democracy isn’t always so clean and simple, as shown by Laura Poitras’ documentary “My Country, My Country.”  Her camera follows various stories unfolding around the first democratic elections in Iraq, which took place in January 2005.  In an interesting see-saw, Poitras features not just the U.N. peacekeepers working to ensure valid and sefe elections but also Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh, an Iraqi candidate from the Sunni minority.

Poitras’ film is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” precisely because of the latter angle on the story.  She shows a genuine care and concern for life on the ground in Iraq, one that is certainly unmatched by any documentary on the Second Gulf War that I have seen.  Riyadh, his family, and the people he hopes to represent are important to Poitras in their own right as human beings – not simply as a means to critique the United States’ involvement in the region.

From her essentially journalistic vantage point, Poitras captures the growing pangs of a new Iraq with clarity and circumspection.  Riyadh is fervent in his desire to have a democracy that represents all of Iraq, which thus necessitates Sunni participation.  But all around him, he finds a reluctance from likeminded members of his community to engage in the election.  These conflicts have no easy resolution, and Poitras leads us on a thought-provoking journey towards the cut-off point of “My Country, My Country.”  She had to stop recording at some point.  But, as we know, the story of democracy in Iraq is still ongoing…