Movie review: Citizenfour (2014)

Citizenfour left me feeling confused and unsettled. Has it really been five years since the Snowden leaks? Has it really only been five years since the Snowden leaks? After the bru-ha-ha died down, did anything change? Were any programs stopped? Was our privacy restored?

After all is said and done, was it worth it? Was it worth Snowden giving up his life to go public with information about government programs that violate, if not laws and our Constitution, then the spirit of America?

Watching Citizenfour and the assumption that the revelation of this data would change the world was deeply saddening. The end game is also quite ironic: idealist American fighting for privacy, freedom, and the curtailing of government powers ends up living in a profoundly unfree autocratic state (Russia).

The documentary was filmed by Laura Poitras, one of the journalists that Edward Snowden initially approached about sensitive government information that he acquired during his work at the NSA. She films the initial days of meeting with Snowden through the initial days after the revelations went public. What would be interesting would be a follow-up: So what happened or changed in electronic surveillance since that time?

Poitras films Glen Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill from The Guardian meeting with Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel room. What is the information that he has? What does it mean? How best to disseminate it? How to communicate electronically but safely?

Citizenfour also shows other meetings and talks, such as Snowden meeting with human rights lawyers as he was seeking to flee Hong Kong or William Binney, a former NSA crypto-mathematician, talking to the German Bundestag after Snowden’s revelations.

The information that Snowden revealed basically showed that the US is hoovering up data from anyone and anything in the world, with telecoms as accomplices. The US, in the grand tradition of authoritarian regimes, is seeking to acquire as much knowledge of the population as possible as a method of control. (A tactic eerily similar to Putin and his intelligence agency roots.) If democracy dies in the darkness, it also dies without privacy and the accompanying freedoms of thought and expression.

As Greenwald points out in a talk to the European Parliament, the US is engaged in electronic surveillance not for national security. National security is just a convenient bogey-man—fear is a tool in the compliance toolbox. Rather gathering this data and monitoring people is in the industrial, financial, and economic interests of companies. It comes down to, I would say, power and money.

I still am not entirely sure how I feel about the leaks or Snowden. It is not clear to me that he is a criminal or a martyr, just someone who was living his conscience and his conscience wouldn’t let him sit by as the government betrayed our trust and the Constitution.

Since he went public with the information he had, I have no proof that things have gotten better. In fact, I assume that they have only gotten worse or accelerated and that the US has improved its techniques and its reach into our lives.

Knowledge is power but in a twisted way I am not sure that making the knowledge public was empowering. There was nothing the public could do about it. Instead, knowledge as power speaks exactly to what the US government is doing: control and power through the accumulation of information about the people.


Movie review: Elle (2016)

Elle is a rather disturbing movie that reveals the complexities of life and motivations. The relationships and lives of those in the movie are not neat and tidy. Some aspects about their lives can be envied. Some rejected. Some motivations seem rational. Others not so much. In other words, Elle reveals the lie that the lives of others are perfect. We see the messiness.

Michele is a successful, powerful business woman. She is rather no-nonsense, whether it is dealing with employees, her son, or lovers. But she also seems a bundle of contradictions. A strong woman who won’t take attitude from anyone but submits to violent rape. A strong woman who seeks boundaries with lovers, but then acquiesces. A woman who juggles different lies but then reveals them one evening.

After a violent rape in her house, Michele does not go to the police but rather gets on with her life. The rape ultimately does not seem to bother her. She tells family and friends and that’s that.

Later her reasoning for not reporting the rape is made clear: she did not have a good past with the police. When she was 10 years old, her father committed mass murder. As a child, she was paraded through the media. Now decades later, her elderly father is up for parole again. A TV special about the murder is being aired.

Could the rape have something to do with the mass murder of her father (who is still hated by the public)? Or could it be the hatred felt for her at work? At her company, which produces video games, someone produced a rape scene with her visage on the victim. This scene went viral in the office.

Michele receives text messages from the rapist, as if he is taunting her. Where is he? Who is he?

Michele ultimately discovers that he is someone she knows. And yet she not only does not report him, she goes out of her way to interact with him. After a car accident when no friends or ex-lovers were available to help, she turns to her rapist. She flirts with continuing a consensual rape relationship with him.

In the end, for reasons unknown (or at least unfathomable), she decides against the relationship. She informs him that she will go to the police. He attempts one last rape.

Michele’s motivations and life are not the only ones that are messy. Those of her family and friends are too. Why does her son remain with a woman who is abusive and gave birth to a son who is clearly not his (though he attacks anyone who says otherwise)? Why did the wife of her ex-lover, best friend, and sometime lover reconcile with her and plan on moving in with her? Why did the ultra-religious wife of her ex-rapist/lover accept Michele’s relationship with her husband? Life is messy—not the enviable neat and tidy façade that people typically show us.

Elle is not for the faint of heart—the movie includes some violent scenes. But it offers a fascinating look at the complexities of motivations and relationships. We are not rational but are the product of the past, which shapes our motivations.

Movie review: Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017)

Ex Libris is an odd documentary. I don’t know that I have ever seen one quite like it. It’s a…voyeuristic documentary.

Rather than being a narrative that pushes towards a conclusion, Ex Libris has no narrative or narrator. The documentary is a collection of meetings that we the viewers watch. We are voyeurs to the things that happen in the libraries, whether it is a board meeting or a recording of a book for the blind or kids programming robots.

Ex Libris takes us to different branches in the New York Public Library system where meetings, talks, readings, and discussions are taking place. The goal seems to be to show us all that libraries are in the modern age and how they are staying relevant.

Libraries are so much more than collections of books. They are hubs for community centers—with everything radiating out from them. They partner with different organizations—government, private corporations, schools—to fulfil community needs. They might work with others to provide support to immigrant communities, mental health initiatives, after-school programs, family and childhood literacy, and the homeless.

Ex Libris shows a library system that is continually stretching, growing, and learning to intertwine more with others to provide exponential value. What libraries can do is limited only by their imagination and funding. Community outreach and advocacy is constant…as is fundraising.

Thrown into the mix is a discussion about digital inclusion—what that means and what the library needs to do to succeed in it. Providing access to the digital world is not sufficient. That will not solve the digital divide between those with digital access, knowledge, and skills and those without. More is needed to include all in the modern technological world. Libraries need to have—and at least in the case of the New York Public Library are having—this discussion.

The thoughtful discussions that the library is involved in is inspiring. Those working in the library system are constantly pondering the role of the library and how to enrich the community and the lives of those in it. The question is not: are libraries relevant, but in what ways and to what depth should they be relevant.

Ex Libris shows us all of the ways that the New York Public Library is deeply intertwined in the community. Some of the services and collections offered were things I did not even imagine, such as a picture collection for anyone to use, recording books for the blind, dance classes, or job workshops. Others were more mundane outreach (at least to me) such as book groups, lectures, or author talks.

The implicit message of the documentary is powerful—the library is more relevant than ever in a digital age and can partner with other organizations to provide deeper, enriching experiences for the community. The format of the documentary with no overarching narrative or explicit drive to a conclusion left me feeling uncomfortable. I wanted to turn off the documentary rather than be a voyeur. I wanted to see a story unfold rather than eavesdrop on meetings and groups using the library.

However, the documentary did one thing. It made me want to move to New York City just so I could use their wonderfully vibrant and relevant library system.

Movie review: Zero Days (2016)

Zero Days is a sobering look at the recent past and our possible future. The documentary is a deep dive into a computer malware attack in 2010—its discovery, its history, and its implications.

The film starts with interviews from security experts associated with Symantec. They explain what they saw and how they teased out information from the malware code itself. This code was unusually bug-free, 20x the size of normal malware code, and very dense. This all suggests a nation-state was behind the malware attack—not cybercriminals, not activists.

The makers of the malware, which is dubbed Stuxnet based on words in the code, left some clues behind. Random numbers in the code turned out to be identification numbers for PLCs (programmable logic controllers), which control critical infrastructure. Certifications in the code came from two companies in close proximity to each other in Taipei, Taiwan.

Although the malware infected computers and systems worldwide, the code was designed to probe for a specific target. Everything not its target it ignored. It ran through certain checks, and if they were not confirmed, then an attack was not initiated. What was its target? Cybersecurity specialists were able to trace the attacks backwards to Iran. Through a series of deductions, they determined that the target was a nuclear facility in Iran.

The documentary interviews a number of officials and experts. Some questions are answered. But some aren’t. No one will confess to being behind Stuxnet or knowing really anything about it. Stuxnet is an open secret. We know it happened, but it is top secret so no one will talk about.

Zero Days gets around that a bit with people who will talk, like the cybersecurity experts who discuss the malware code they analyzed. David Sanger, the National Security Correspondent at the New York Times, describes the history and politics of Iran and the transfer of nuclear technology from Pakistan to Iran. An insider who was part of the organization that created the code at the NSA spills the beans—she is disguised physically and vocally. (In the end, it turns out that she was an actor reading a script of composite information. This information was gleaned from several experts at the CIA and NSA who came forward to set the story straight—the story that everyone was getting wrong.)

Olympic Games, the more official name of the program commonly referred to as Stuxnet, was a collaborative creation between the US, the UK, and Israel. The program was designed to get into systems, spy on them, and infect them—all without ever being detected. The US got involved in this, it seems, in order to reign in Israel’s desire at more destructive tactics against Iran. In the end, the US was not successful in curtailing Israel. Israel changed the code to make the malware more aggressive, which led to the Iranians noticing the malware.

Originally, the program infected an Iranian nuclear facility, waited as it studied the systems, and then began to modify the speed that centrifuges were running, which ultimately caused them to explode. All the while though the malware ran normal data on the computers that the engineers were monitoring, so it seemed as though nothing was wrong even though centrifuges were blowing up. Iran suspected problems with the centrifuges or the engineers, not malware—until the Israelis changed the code to shut down the computers. Then the Iranian discovered the malware.

To get to this point, remember, the malware supposedly harmlessly infected computers as it spread across the world. The malware was only designed to run on computers that met certain criteria, i.e., the Iranian computers in their nuclear facility.

But no one knew this. When Homeland Security discovered that computers across the US were infected, they were trying to figure out how to prevent critical infrastructure from being taken out. No one in the US government told Homeland Security that there was nothing to worry about. Instead, Homeland Security spoke to Congress and spent money and time trying to deal with a red herring. The agencies and people in the US in the know could not admit to involvement in the program. The left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing.

But that wasn’t the only unintended side effect. Stuxnet attacked in 2010. In 2012, Iran conducted a cyberattack on Saudi oil facilities, erasing all of their programs and disrupting those facilities. In 2013, Iran caused a surge attack on several large American banks, creating a disruption in the banking system. Basically, Iran was telling the US, we can hit you the same way you hit us.

The US had unleashed a Pandora box. Cyberwar was now a game that was acceptable, with no rules, and anyone can play. And what did we achieve with Stuxnet? There was a one-year dip in the number of operating centrifuges in Iran and then a surge in 2012 as the Iranians expanded their nuclear program. So our goal of affecting their nuclear program really failed.

The disguised composite of NSA/CIA agents spoke of a larger program, Nitro Zeus, which is meant to infect all critical infrastructure in Iran—basically as a type of all-out war. The chilling thing is that taking out critical infrastructure wouldn’t just take out military targets. Critical infrastructure is everything needed for a society to function, including power and water. In theory, war is against combatants, not civilians. With Nitro Zeus, there is no distinction. Civilians will likely be the ones that suffer the most.

Ironically, the documentary mentions the 2015 Iran deal concerning its nuclear capabilities—a deal that the US recently walked away from. The dissolution of this deal will likely cause unintended consequences like the use of Stuxnet/Olympic Games did. The US seemingly partnered with Israel on Stuxnet to try to reign in Israeli actions (at least this is the implication that I picked up in the film), but clearly that didn’t work. Since then, Israel demanded the destruction of the Iran nuclear deal. When will we think through the unintended consequences of our actions?

Movie review: LBJ (2017)

Like Jackie, the storyline in LBJ radiates from the assassination of JFK. The movie looks backwards to when Lyndon Baines Johnson was at the height of his political power as the majority leader in the Senate, his race against JFK for the Democratic nomination, and the hours before JFK’s death.

Woody Harrelson does an excellent job portraying LBJ (or at least the stereotype of LBJ). I was a bit fixated on his makeup job as it seemed…a bit odd. Harrelson played LBJ as the rather crude figure that he cut and who desperately wanted others to like him even as he seemed to go out of his way to be unlikeable. (At one point, one of his loyal minions mutters in reaction to his actions something to the effect that no wonder people don’t like him.)

Johnson’s power in the Senate is legendary and the movie shows this. He is always scheming and conniving, twisting arms for votes, or seeking compromise to maintain or nurture relationships. In one instance after he agreed to give a lucrative contract to a company in Georgia in order to court Senator Russell, someone balked at the idea of giving the contract to a company with such racist practices.

But Johnson gained a concession from Russell: the company would hire African-Americans as engineers. Johnson explained that it is “better to have him [Russell] inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”—his version of “hold your friends close and your enemies closer”.

But the movie also shows a rather neutered Johnson as vice president to Kennedy. He is cut out of discussions and relegated to posts where he could not be effective. His political skills were wasted as vice president.

Why did Johnson agree to be vice president? That didn’t seem clear to me. Johnson was a calculating man, but I doubt that he could predict his rise to the presidency through the assassination of JFK.

Johnson seems to become himself, a leader who knows instinctively what to do, after an aide announces the death of JFK. He takes to the new role naturally. He calls former presidents and VIPs in government, seeking to gather as much knowledge as possible, to build coalitions, and to cement relationships. He is now back in his element.

But then we see his self-doubt. What is his presidency to be about? JKF’s men clearly want Kennedy’s legacy to be fulfilled. In what is probably the least satisfying bit of the movie, LBJ, a life-long southern Democrat (= anti-civil rights) makes a sharp turn to the left and embraces what will become his New Deal legislation.

Why did he make such a radical ideological left-turn? The movie suggests a comment from Lady Bird during self-doubt that he suffered early in his presidency. What would he be known for? He could claim execution of Kennedy’s vision.

I do not understand this as his reason for taking up the liberal mantle. By doing so, he betrayed his fellow southerners. Was it part of a calculation for getting elected in his own right? If so, then he indeed played the long game.

He ended up giving us the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start. Liberal reform from the most unlikely of sources: a Texan Democrat when the southern Democrats were a racist bunch.

But then how could such a political pro so badly miscalculate his Vietnam strategy? LBJ seems to be a contradiction. A southern Democrat but supporter of civil rights. A man who so desperately wanted to be liked but insulted those around him in words and deed. LBJ doesn’t answer these questions but shows you the stereotypes (true or not) of the man. A political animal hated by many.