Off Centre

Change the world, you say? Anti-spying push just can’t hack it despite ‘Citizenfour’

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 April, 2015, 5:06pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 May, 2015, 12:15pm

A bunch of renegade Americans on the run from their own wicked government hole up in Hong Kong hoping to escape “political bullshit”. At the end, there’s a scene with a plane.

Yes, I have finally got round to watching Push, the 2009 Hollywood sci-fi thriller concerning citizens with special psychic powers whom shadowy security agents wish to control.

The critics – a tad harshly, I seem to think – decided Push was aimlessly convoluted, and worse, stupid. Critics are often grossly stupid themselves, it is true, but still it’s likely I would have kept it off my watch list if I hadn’t interviewed the director, Paul McGuigan, before its release.

In 2009 I had yet to set foot in Hong Kong. McGuigan (Lucky Number Slevin, Gangster No. 1) and I met in his (and my) native Scotland.

He invited me to hang out with him in Los Angeles and meet Bruce Willis and Mark Wahlberg. This never came to pass, but that is by the by. What I recall most clearly is that he said he had “shot the f*** out of Hong Kong” – and it’s certainly true.

His camera, fluid and rapacious, captures the city in all its grit, splendour and eye-searing colour. There is also a man who meets his end by being impaled on some bamboo scaffolding.

The other thing I remember is that, sci-fi fantasy or not, McGuigan was quite ready to believe the US government guilty of everything they are seen to be up to in his film: developing covert psychic capabilities based on Nazi research; conducting experiments that kill US citizens; advanced mind control; and so on.

Rightly or wrongly, the same readiness on the part of Hollywood to believe the worst of American government intentions was in evidence some weeks ago as Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald were fêted with an Oscar for Citizenfour, Poitras’ documentary in which they meet in Hong Kong with Edward Snowden.

Hollywood, of course, felt rather less comradely towards the hacking fraternity last year when it was itself the victim. But mark you – the American entertainment industry would be a foolish place to seek anything like actual principles.

Citizenfour records Snowden leaking US National Security Agency documents that reveal the extent of that organisation’s dubiously authorised harvesting of data about the phone calls and digital lives of just about everyone on the planet, then getting into bed with the Russians.

It lacks the action and pace of Push. Much time is spent watching Snowden stare out of a window, type on his laptop and gel his hair. In fact, we don’t learn much from Citizenfour that wasn’t already widely known and it won’t change opinions of the whistle-blower himself, whether favourable or otherwise.

To those who earnestly believe his actions and those of others like him will “change the world”, as he has put it, I suggest only that there appears overwhelming cause for doubt.

Beijing has affected outrage these past two years whilst sniggering in the shadows; Washington may be slightly chastened. Both, and governments elsewhere, will continue to spy. Privacy will remain profoundly compromised in cyberspace. And people will carry on with their lives.

Though slumped at near historic lows, public trust in government in the US actually rose in the year following Snowden’s revelations. Surveys since have consistently shown both significant distrust of internet companies – and high approval for the NSA’s data collection programmes.

In Citizenfour the state emerges as the sinister, power-crazed enemy of a wilfully ignorant public. Hollywood apart, the American public itself appears to take a more nuanced view.