Blade Runner (1982)

Director: Ridley Scott

With the recent release of the sequel to Blade Runner, now is a good time to look back on the political themes that made Ridley Scott’s original film remain relevant and influential today.

City streets of LA in 2019

Blade Runner is perhaps one of the the prime examples of a cyberpunk film, in the sense of its popularity and the presence of the key elements of the genre. It is a loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Much has been written about Blade Runner (including multiple books on the film) and it remains one of the most influential science fiction films, so we cannot pretend to be able to examine all of the important aspects of the film in this post. The future depicted in the film is one of a decaying capitalism and vast inequality with continued corporate dominance over cities and people’s lives. This dystopia has become common not only in the cyberpunk genre but in many science fiction films since.

Lead rebel replicant Roy Batty and Eldon Tyrell

The film is often interpreted as a critique of neoliberalism. Corporate power runs rampant, and while technology has advanced significantly, the problems of society have not been solved but rather have been exacerbated or at least brushed under the rug. The story revolves around a “Blade Runner” named Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) whose job is to “retire” or destroy artificial intelligence androids called replicants. These machines were made to be humanlike but to serve humans by doing work and serving as soldiers in the “off world” colonies, which are colonies in space.

The replicants are illegal on Earth because they led a mutiny in an off-world colony which made the society on Earth uneasy with their presence even as servants. Thus a Blade Runner’s job is to track down a destroy a category of servants that are seen as a threat to the social order of Earth. Blade Runners thus essentially play a reactionary role in that they are tasked with eliminating rebellious humanoid beings that threaten the current power structure of human dominance over the androids.

The replicants featured in the film have escaped from their off-world colony and have returned to Earth in an attempt to infiltrate the Tyrell Corporation. There they want to discover how to extend their life span limit which was imposed by the corporation at their creation. Thus the Deckerd’s job in the film is simply to prevent these human like machines from extending their own lives in the service of the state apparatus and the corporation itself.

Deckard searching for the last replicants to hunt down

While there is some tension between the corporation and the state in the sense that the corporation of course wants the unlimited ability to produce replicants for profit (going as far as to claim that replicants are “more human than human”), it’s quite clear that in the world of Blade Runner that corporations continue their rule over society. For example in many shots we are shown futuristic advertisements from contemporary companies (many of which ultimately went out of business, leading to what was called the Blade Runner Curse). While the world has clearly entered a significant decline due to war, environmental destruction, the extinction of many animals and pets, etc. corporations have increased their efforts to advertise and sell products. This increased sales effort can be seen as a sign of a broader crisis of the system itself. So while there has always been some tension between the state and corporations, what this dystopian world makes clear is that corporations still rule.

Blade Runner is structured in part like an old film noir detective movie. But the major difference is of course the overall setting and role that the police in this film play. What’s exposed in the main characters adventures isn’t the solving of an interesting mystery but rather an exposè of a dystopian world where the ability of capital to run rampant essentially remains unchecked.

Further reading:

The Dystopian World of Blade Runner: An Ecofeminist Perspective

A Marxist Analysis on the Movie “Blade Runner”


The Mine Wars (2016)

Director: Randall MacLowry

Meeting of UMWA Local 4033

Meeting of UMWA Local

The Mine Wars is a documentary film that is a part of the PBS show American Experience. The film documents the various struggles between coal mine workers and the mine owners in southern West Virginia in the early 20th century. This piece of history has enjoyed a renewed interest because of the recent struggles against strip mining (or mountain top removal) in West Virginia where Blair Mountain was to be essentially destroyed after the state’s Historical Preservation Office refrained from adding the site to its register of historical sites. The struggles of the mine wars led to what would be the largest insurrection since the US Civil War at the Battle of Blair Mountain. The film also features an account of the violent struggle that was featured in the film Matewan.

The film is about the attempt by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and its supporters to unionize the largely non-union southern West Virginian coal mines. Most of the mines in the northern part of the state had been unionized by the turn of the century and those workers had been receiving better pay than their non-union counterparts in the south. In the non-union mines, workers faced more dangerous working conditions and no representation on the job and had for years tried to improve their awful working conditions. Their efforts to unionize were met with harsh repression by a mix of violent private agents hired by the mine owners (particularly the Baldwin Felts detective agency, who were quite similar to the Pinkertons), some local sheriff agencies, and the US Army.

State forces preparing for battle against miners

State forces preparing for battle against miners

Mother Jones is featured throughout the documentary for her support of the mine workers’ struggle, particularly early on when the UMWA first made attempts to organize the southern mines. Her role in the beginning of the struggle was crucial in rallying and mobilizing workers to the cause, but as the violence began escalating in the later years, she played a much more restraining role which highlights the conflict not only between the miners and the company but within the workers movement itself. Although it is made clear that she was simply trying to avoid a disastrous result, she ultimately played a demobilizing role as the the miners had begun to gain real momentum.

The film does an excellent job in analyzing the internal dynamics which led to perhaps the most militant action taken by workers in the United States in the 20th century. While explicit socialist politics didn’t play the driving factor in pushing the miners to directly confront both the state and the mining companies, a radical political orientation of the local leadership certainly helped to establish that compromise was not the best option. The efforts to use force to achieve their demands showed that the mine workers in that region had achieved a level of class consciousness that had not been seen in some time in the United States, and the fact that the US military itself intervened showed that even the most powerful in society were nervous about the potential of the situation to get “out of hand.”

Ultimately, the miners did not succeed in their efforts, and many of the miners who marched directly against the state were imprisoned which led to the union drive to largely be a failure. But some credit this action with laying the groundwork for an increased focus on labor rights and for setting the stage for the labor struggles of the 1930s.

The Mine Wars is a great contribution to labor documentaries and should be used as a resource for those looking to understand the history of militant labor struggle in the United States.

Selma (2014)

Director: Ava DuVernay

MLK in a preparation meeting.

MLK in a preparation meeting.

Selma is a film about the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to pressure the Federal Government over the issue of voting rights for African-Americans in the South. The film has been the subject of recent controversies about its historical accuracy as well as itself being snubbed at recent awards ceremonies like the Academy Awards despite the overwhelmingly positive critical response the film has received. It is a deeply political film that focuses on the role that Martin Luther King Jr. played in organizing and leading those marches as well as the civil rights movement in general. It has been noted for not painting the picture of the “sanitized” MLK Jr. but rather the “radical” MLK who understood the need for civil disobedience and mass mobilization.

A film of this nature is always subject to controversy. Many, including on the Right, have criticized the film for portraying President Johnson (or LBJ) in such a negative light. They argue that the film made LBJ seem opposed to the march that MLK was helping to promote when they claim he was actually very supportive. Liberals and conservatives who are upset by this portrayal are upset by the fact that MLK was not just working hand in hand with the Democratic Party but rather was an outside force putting pressure on the establishment. The film, according to this narrative, doesn’t do justice to the role that LBJ and the Democratic Party played. In reality, however, it was the other way around: the civil rights movement was itself the reason that the Democratic Party wanted to move forward in the legislative arena, and it moved forward reluctantly. It is this concept of how the movement made an impact on society that the film is based on.

The director of the film Ava DuVernay responded to these various criticisms by saying that the “notion that Selma was LBJ’s idea is jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so.” The film depicts the hard work that went into making these kinds of marches possible. The early ground work of reaching out to community organizations, direct action training, and the “backroom” political dealings are all depicted as playing important contributing parts of the wider movement. And importantly, MLK is himself not presented as a sort of all knowing larger than life figure, but rather a major charismatic leader amongst many militants and activists who play just as important roles as he did. The tensions within the movement are also depicted in a realistic way that contrasts to the rosy picture we are often fed in these kinds of films. That rosy picture usually shows everyone united and working together well. While this movement was indeed united, it’s important to understand tensions between MLK and groups like SNCC because those tensions helped to shape the movement in important ways.

Riot police get ready to charge the marchers.

Riot police get ready to charge the marchers.

Something that really sets this film apart from many other narratives about the civil rights movement in popular culture is how it depicts the state’s efforts to discredit, spy, and destabilize MLK. To move the story along, instead of having generic captions of what was happening next in the years in question, the film showed internal FBI communications about the movement in general and in particular their surveillance against King. There are also scenes with the President and the director of the FBI (J Edgar Hoover) who discuss ways to spy on MLK and try to figure out how much of a “threat” he is to the US. While this history is well known, it usually isn’t highlighted the way it is in this film.

The other controversy around the film is how much it has been snubbed at recent awards ceremonies. At the Golden Globes, the film did not win most of the categories it was nominated for despite glowing reviews by critics. But more importantly, it was not even nominated for Best Director or Actor at the Academy Awards despite being nominated for Best Song (which it did win) and Best Picture. While this highlights a bigger problem in the film industry, it is likely that the political nature of the film played a role in the snubbing.

Selma is a well done film and deserves praise for that alone. But from a political perspective, it does what many other films this popular refuse to do and really tackles uncomfortable aspects of American history. It should be viewed by progressives today as parallels between the marches in the 1960s and the marches of the past few months are striking.

American Sniper (2014)

This is a guest submission from Dan Falcone. Dan Falcone analyzes the film, American Sniper and its underlying meanings. He suggests that the film is an opportunity for the organized left to give a larger meaning and historical context for learning why the film is so popular.

American Sniper is not the Problem; it’s the History and the Policies

Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle

Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle

American Sniper is a very dramatic film about a soldier in the Iraq War. It was directed by the right-wing Clint Eastwood. The film is based on an autobiography about Chris Kyle. It seems to set out to draw commercial appeal by having you know that Kyle possessed the deadliest shot in American Military History.

The film premiered in November 2014 at the American Film Institute Festival, and had a more widespread release in January 2015, setting many box office records. It has brought in over 200 million dollars.

In my view, the overall lessons and main ideological points of the film are the following. First is the notion of patriotism in American males often set forth by the influence of a strong male figure in the formative years of youth. For example, Kyle’s father teaches him how to shoot a rifle in Texas as a young man.

The second notion is that in order for a person to carry out these unnatural desires, such as killing, they perhaps at some point need to exist in an extremely limited information environment. For instance, the film suggests that Kyle saw news coverage of the 1998 US embassy Kenya-Tanzania bombings.

This, according to the story gave him the motivation to enlist and engage in an over-simplified battle of “good vs. evil.” This bombing of a US embassy was no doubt a terrible crime, and at the time, the US lacked evidence for responsibility. It was later learned to be in retaliation to our fickle and dangerous invasion of Saudi Arabia that entailed permanence in 1990. The 1990 US action in Saudi Arabia came soon after we vowed to (and heavily armed) Osama bin Laden that Russia would not permanently occupy Afghanistan just years earlier. Military recruiters nevertheless used this as an opportunity to attract hyper-patriotic enlistees with a desire for revenge but without a connection to the history or geo-political nature of the region.

Sunset in Iraq

Sunset in Iraq

Another message in the film, in my view, was that it was somehow noble, and not bizarre, for Kyle to keep returning to the battlefield for a war of false pretexts and in the face of his family concerned over his well-being. His wife’s wish for him to not participate in a fourth tour suggests that the country always came first. Furthermore, we never see designers of American foreign policy questioned or the elementary purpose of the war centralized: strategic energy and hegemony.

The additional purposes of the film were clear to me. One is the obvious legitimizing of the war in Iraq after historical amnesia has had time to set in. Another is to promote the false idea that American power has a problem with fundamentalism and its threat to our freedoms; when in fact fundamentalist regimes in the region and elsewhere has often served our national interests and do nothing to impact our internal freedoms. Third, we are to believe that the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the US Embassy bombings of Kenya-Tanzania in 1998, the bombing of the USS Cole of 2000, and the horrendous events of September 11, 2001, all correlate and boil down to Bush’s war in Iraq and Kyle’s specialized missions. This is not stated, but it is presupposed.

This reduces history and frankly Islam to an error-filled narrative of illogical connections based on ahistorical tales of American state power and how it is exercised. Lastly, I suppose it is Eastwood’s statement on how President Obama does not have the stomach to invade Middle East countries or engage militarily with the Arab world. For this inaccuracy I simply invite you to read William Blum’s essays on Obama’s interventions.

One valuable segment of the film is to notice the realities of PTSD as a possible affliction that Kyle experienced. Here again, is an opportunity for the viewer, and the left, not to criticize young men inadequately trained with angst, but for the realization that war is a rich man’s profit and a poor man’s fight.

The victims of the American military are portrayed as threats

The victims of the American military are portrayed as threats

But even here, it is hard to comprehend Kyle, who does not ever question his mission and purpose, but it is his guilt of not protecting his men in what was an illegal mission in the first place. This gives unwarranted cover to the likes of Bush and Cheney. Also, veterans I have spoken with are skeptical of someone like Kyle who would return home to teach people how to shoot guns when their own experience included an inability to look at a gun upon returning home. But again, it is the architects of policy for these wars that are responsible, not the insecure, exploited Chris Kyles of the world or any individual that would fabricate a mythical fight with Jesse Ventura just to double down for their own self-worth. It is the US government that hurt Chris Kyle.

Finally, I would urge the liberal elite and media to not simply ridicule the film or military personnel like Chris Kyle. Soldiers that are victimized by propaganda are not to blame or be made fun of. The most culpable are the people in positions of power that design illegal interventions based on aggression and utilization of state power to secure dominance and influence in the world.

Dan Falcone has a master’s degree in Modern American History from LaSalle University in Philadelphia and currently teaches secondary education. He has interviewed Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Richard Falk, William Blum, Medea Benjamin and Lawrence Davidson. He resides in Washington, DC.

The Lego Movie (2014)

Directors: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

Emmet is thrilled to purchase overpriced coffee. An example of the film's attack on consumerism

Emmet is thrilled to purchase overpriced coffee. An example of the film’s anti-consumerism.

The political ideology of The Lego Movie‘s plot, which was released last year, has been a source of some debate among some in American media circles. It has been accused of promoting a strong “anti-capitalist” and an “anti-business” message, while on the other hand it has even been promoted as a libertarian story that promotes the virtues of individualism against collectivist conformity.

When The Lego Movie was released, channels like Fox Business hosted guests who claimed that it contained an clear anti-capitalist theme and went on to condemn it as what they call a typical example of Hollywood’s “far Left politics.” The absurdity of claiming that Hollywood is anything but one of the main promoters of capitalist ideology in the United States aside, is their claim about Lego Movie correct?

The plot of the film revolves around the all powerful “President Business” who has a sort of Orwellian control over the Lego world depicted in the film. The main character of the film is a construction worker who is over content with fitting in to society, which is highlighted by the popular song in the beginning of the film called “Everything is Awesome” which is a parody of the celebration of every day life. Criticizing this complacency is the focus of the film’s plot, and through the adventures that the main character goes through he slowly develops a consciousness that calls into question the idea that “everything is awesome.” He sees that there exists a popular underground resistance to the status quo of President Business.

As the film develops and the main character becomes more involved with the resistance, he begins to learn that the complacency he suffered from was a major problem for not only him but society as a whole. Although the “plainness” of his personality is often the subject of jokes from his fellow resistance fighters, who end up being popular culture figures in lego form throughout the film (for example, Batman is one of the heroes of the film, although he is portrayed as unintelligent and lucky unlike in most of the Batman films).

The main city of the film

The main city of the film

As the heroes go on their quest, the eventually help foment an uprising against President Business which ends up being the climax of the film. What is the nature of that uprising? Is it, as Fox Business claims, a Left wing fantasy of overthrowing capitalism (represented by the greedy President Business) or is it as Glenn Beck claims: a libertarian celebration of individual creativity? One plot point that is clear is that the conclusion of the revolt is not some radical new order for this fantasy world, but rather a reconciliation between President Business and the resistance. He agrees to allow the masses to express their own creativity and to not try to “freeze” everyone where they’re at. This could be interpreted as a sort of implementation of the American Dream, “we won’t hold you back from realizing your economic potential any longer.” It certainly do not call into question the role of someone like President Business as owner of the wealth of the world he rules over. This vague reconciliation leaves it open to interpretation what the writers meant by depicting this revolt. Being mediated through the somewhat tense relationship between the father and son also adds ambiguity and dilutes the political message, at least to the extent where a more psychoanalytical approach is required.

While there are lines in the film like “the construction worker is the hero” (when the son of the “meta story” is responding to his father when discussing the importance of the toys) may make is feel that it is a film about class consciousness and oppression, we should remember that ultimately it is not a film about empowering those who are oppressed to reorganize their society, but rather to just be able to let their “individual creativity” become unleashed. The film does critique consumerism and implicate critiques the greedy nature of capitalism to a large extent, but the solutions offered fall short of the “far left politics” that Fox Business would have us believe. It is a progressive film, but not a revolutionary film.

Citizenfour (2014)

This review originally appeared on Truthout. It is reposted here with permission from the author and the website. Review written and submitted by Dan Falcone.

Director: Laura Poitras


Citizenfour is about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s actions as well as the collective work of reporters, and whistleblowers Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, Jeremy Scahill and William Binney.

Laura Poitras produced My Country, My Country in 2006. In that film she explained life for Iraqis under American occupation. In 2010, she produced The Oath, which covered two Yemenis’ relation to Gitmo and the War on Terror. Poitras also produced The Program, which discusses the domestic surveillance enterprise in Bluffdale, Utah. As a result of this body of work, Poitras undergoes monitoring by the United States Government, and is harassed routinely by border patrol agents.

Laura Poitras is not shown in the film. She compares this to never seeing a writer in a book. For her, the work is about what is unfolding in front of her camera. She is the film’s narrator. Poitras obtained some 20 hours of Edward Snowden footage to make the film. The film is done in the style of “direct cinema,” originated by Jean Rouch. Citizenfour shows what happened, as it happened.

Spoiler Alert: If you don’t want to know what happens in the movie, skip to “Conclusion.”

Citizen Four’s Anonymous Emails to Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald

In the film’s opening scene, Poitras’s voice can be heard as a car proceeds through a very dark tunnel showing only a light trail above. Citizen Four’s initial emails are read by Poitras to the audience. Poitras reads:

“Laura, at this stage I can offer nothing more than my word. I am a senior government employee in the intelligence community. I hope you understand that contacting you is extremely high risk … From now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, … site you visit … subject line you type … is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not. … In the end if you publish the source material, I will likely be immediately implicated. … I ask only that you ensure this information makes it home to the American public. … Thank you, and be careful. Citizen Four.”

The film's portrayal of the transfer of important digital files

The film’s portrayal of the transfer of important digital files

Snowden calls himself Citizen Four because he believes he is not the first person within the NSA to find the actions of the United States Government deplorable. He also insists that the story should not be about him but about his actions and the potential actions of others. Citizen Four contacts Poitras because he is aware of her involvement in reporting and film making, but most importantly, he knows how she is being victimized by the NSA’s far-reaching system at airports.

The film goes on to discuss Presidential Policy Directive 20, a 2012 strategy implemented by President Obama to broaden, enlarge and strengthen the existing Bush-era national security procedures.The film successfully reveals the erosion of judicial oversight when it comes to national security in the United States, especially in relation to matters where no national security is at stake. It suggests that the real goal of security is for the actions of power and privilege to be insulated from the public.

In a case involving Mark Stein and AT&T, a judge on close circuit television remarks to the attorney, “What role do Justices have, would you like us to just go away?”

Tech activist Jacob Appelbaum is seen at a conference describing the concept of “linkability.” Linkability is the concept of tracing citizens in order to know where they are at all times based on information and technology. To Appelbaum, this is very alarming.

Glenn Greenwald’s first Citizen Four-related story is on Verizon and is headlined worldwide. It is based on Citizen Four’s email:

“Publicly, we complain that things are going dark, but in fact, their accesses are improving. The truth is that the NSA in its history has never collected more than it does now. I know the location of most domestic interception points, and that the largest telecommunication companies in the US are betraying the trust of their customers, which I can prove.”

The Hong Kong Revelations

Greenwald and Poitras organize to meet with Citizen Four in the hotel lobby in Hong Kong. Snowden explains that he will be working on a Rubik’s cube. That is how they are to identify him:

“On timing, regarding meeting up in Hong Kong, the first rendezvous attempt will be at 10 A.M. local time on Monday. We will meet in the hallway outside of the restaurant in the Mira Hotel. I will be working on a Rubik’s cube so that you can identify me. Approach me and ask if I know the hours of the restaurant. I’ll respond by stating that I’m not sure and suggest you try the lounge instead. I’ll offer to show you where it is, and at that point we’re good. You simply need to follow naturally.”

In the hotel room in Hong Kong are Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill. They discuss the content of some of Citizen Four’s documents and Snowden lets them know his name, and how the NSA was spinning out of control. Snowden felt that NSA policy construction was reaching a point where it could never be meaningfully opposed by citizens.

Snowden reveals in the film that he was born in North Carolina and he goes by Ed. He comes from a military family in the section known as Elizabeth City in Pasquotank County. He then moved to Fort Meade, Maryland because his father worked near Washington DC. To this day, in DC, taxi drivers have stories about how they used to drive Snowden around the DMV area in the early 2000s. They comment that he looked the exact same way, and they collectively agree that Snowden was decent to drivers and tipped well to union members specifically.

The famous Honk Kong interview with Snowden

The famous Honk Kong interview with Snowden

Snowden added that some people involved in security state surveillance are extremely bright while also describing some as completely mediocre. In other words, the tools and capability for people to watch everyone were no longer specialized; there was a generic function and incredible possibilities for anybody to be watched at any time, routinely within the NSA. There is an expectation to be under the NSA gaze.

Snowden additionally commented on how at NSA you could log-on and watch a drone strike from any desk. The expectation was that all things were to be watched. Furthermore, he informed the reporters in his hotel room that all of the information coming in to be investigated was entering in real time.It was not being stored to be investigated at a later date.

Snowden then describes to the reporters GCHQ and its program called Tempora. GCHQ is The Government Communications Headquarters in Britain. This intelligence gathering facility supplies signals intelligence to the British military and government. He describes the meaning of a “full take” enterprise. This is a full sweeping collecting of data without any discrimination. Snowden is alarmed that there is collusion with a foreign government to network domestic watching. In other words, Snowden reveals that what happens in the GCHQ is illegal in the United States but the UK, according to one of Snowden’s emails, “let us query it all day long.”

Snowden it seems has so much knowledge of NSA capability that to the average citizen his concerns may appear to border on paranoia. In the hotel Snowden, explained to the reporters that the phone needed to be unplugged since there are devices inside phone receivers even when hung up. He knows this because he has been a part of efforts to make them. Snowden also has a ritual in the hotel room – he would always cover his head when typing in his password. This is someone fully aware of the consequences, and he knew the inevitability of having “a target on his back.”

Snowden lets the reporters know that at NSA, 1 billion telephones and internet sites could be watched simultaneously and that the Department of Defense has 20 sites set up working to equal 20 billion people being watched at once.

The Tempora story is reported by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian without mention of Edward Snowden. The reaction to the leaks was fast and furious. Here, the as-it-happened-style of the film is at its best. Snowden is seen in the film watching the story break before he is known to the world. Greenwald was a guest on CNN as he discussed the danger of neglecting court orders to conduct indiscriminate and sweeping collections of people’s personal data. He talked about how perilous it is for the government to eliminate the warrant requirement.

Journalists of the Hong Kong interview

Journalists of the Hong Kong interview

After Greenwald appeared on CNN, Snowden received a call in his hotel room that the NSA Human Resources director had shown up at his house. They just entered and broke in. No one knew where Snowden was, since he routinely disappeared for work for various projects and trips. Lindsay Mills, Snowden’s partner, explained that the rent checks were not being wired through properly and that the street where Snowden lived was lined with construction vehicles. This may have propelled him to go public sooner since it provided a crystal clear example that his identification was soon to come. Greenwald urges him to consider coming out and Snowden agrees. He does emphasize however, his worry that the story will become about him instead of an issue of public concern.

The Aftermath of Snowden Coming Out as the Leaker and Whistleblower

On June 10, 2013, Snowden had agreed to go public by allowing Greenwald to expose his identity. Snowden explained how he was an infrastructure analyst for the NSA with top secret classified information. When the story broke that Snowden was the leaker, his name and image were suddenly visible worldwide and the film illustrates the impact on Snowden of becoming an icon instantaneously. Producer Laura Poitras asked if he was okay. Seconds later, the phone rings and Snowden answers – it is the Wall Street Journal which had tracked him down in the hotel in Hong Kong just moments after the story broke. This is one of the more fascinating scenes in this cinema verité.

Moments after that call, other calls start to pour in and Snowden is in need of a Hong Kong human rights attorney to get him out of the hotel safely. In Poitras’s room he discusses with the human rights attorney asylum options and extradition for political speech. The Hong Kong attorney sets Snowden up with Robert Tibbo, another human rights lawyer. Snowden is subsequently charged with three felonies back home. They discuss taking Snowden to Iceland or Venezuela. He winds up in Moscow, Russia and is permitted to stay for one year.

A rather interesting clip is when the international lawyer meets to discuss the three felony charges under the Espionage Act, a US domestic law from WWI to eliminate in-country spies. WWI propaganda under Woodrow Wilson had similar forms of political repression with “big lies” while stifling and challenging dissent. Snowden was being placed in this WWI context. He was not however, a spy, but a whistleblower.

Snowden begins to pack his things and organize his stuff. On his bed is copy of Cory Doctorow’s, Homeland. This is a quite apropos novel since it includes two afterword essays by computer security researcher and hacker Jacob Appelbaum, and the late computer programmer and Internet activist Aaron Swartz.

Near the end of the film, we learn that the FBI and the UK teamed up to find Snowden and that the UK Government ordered Guardian investigative reporter Ewen MacAskill to destroy all of his devices with content provided by Snowden. Apparently, the United States still has greater freedom of the press than the UK.

We also see the White House calling for Snowden to surrender and claim his due process rights before a court. President Obama does not think Snowden was a patriot; he thinks there was a “law-abiding” way for him to express concerns and dissent in “orderly” fashion.

We also see footage of Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda being detained after a flight from Berlin to Heathrow. This was a clear jab at intimidation and reminder that national security is now gratuitous, far-reaching, intimidating to individual people and internationally orchestrated. It provides evidence of the NSA and GCHQ working in cahoots.

We are shown the “Dagger Complex” in Germany, a United States military base that tells of our collusion with Chancellor Merkel and our interest in running drone programs through Germany as cover. Additionally, reporter Jeremy Scahill is shown following up and investigating reports from a second anonymous whistle-blower. William Binney is also featured at the end of the film. The bookending of Binney is important for the film’s thesis. Snowden was not a disconnected isolated character. He wasn’t alone in wanting to come forward.

At the end of the film, Greenwald is in a hotel room with Snowden in Moscow. At this point, Greenwald must have believed Snowden’s fear that every conversation could be recorded. So Greenwald writes down names and facts in between generic phrases, like something from Mad Libs. He places everything on paper to show Snowden in the hotel room. In Moscow, Greenwald reveals to Snowden that the work of Jeremy Scahill (via another whistleblower) shows that the US was working with other nations and governments to collect data and use drone weaponry. For instance, drone strikes that were done through Germany were traced up to POTUS. Snowden was stunned to learn it. Then Greenwald reveals that “Citizen Five’s” (if you will) whistleblowing has helped the public to learn that POTUS has 1.2 million specific citizens on a watch list. Again, Snowden gasps.


Historian Lawrence Davidson has written of Edward Snowden:

“. . .Edward Snowden decided to release massive amounts of secret government data in order ‘to make their fellow citizens aware of what their government is doing in the dark.’ However, what the historical record suggests is that, under most circumstances, only a minority of the general population will care. Thus, in the case of the United States, the effectiveness of whistleblowers may be more successfully tested in the law courts wherein meaningful judgment can be rendered on the behavior of the other branches of government, than in the court of public opinion. However, this judicial arena is also problematic because it depends on the changing mix of politics and ideology of those sitting in judgment rather than any consistent adherence to principles.  In 1971 judicial judgment went for Ellsberg. In 2013, men like Manning and Snowden [and Assange] probably do not have a snowball’s chance in hell.”

This astute observation is troubling yet reality-based. Snowden’s actions don’t seem to be admired by a majority of citizens and President Obama certainly knows this. Perhaps the film can help to relay more information to people and become more than just a political thriller. I think the film tried to emphasize the need for people to care about this issue. The results are yet to be seen. For Snowden and Greenwald and everyone else involved with this film, they had to act.

Snowden knew he had to act, gambled on his activism picking up speed, and needed to reveal classified information to make his statement. We know this because William Binney and Poitras, and a host of other reporters, producers, academics and activists, are continually marginalized and harassed at gun point.

In Rolling Stone, Greenwald had a traditional Voltaire-styled perspective on speech, “To me, it’s a heroic attribute to be so committed to a principle that you apply it … not when it protects people you like, but when it defends and protects people that you hate.”

A possible defense for President Obama is that he inherited a dog’s dinner from the Bush Administration in the way of American Foreign Policy. A recent argument by Aaron David Miller, an elite liberal propagandist, follows this trajectory. He was left to maintain or heighten all provisions and engaged in a dangerous, perhaps unlawful, search for Osama bin Laden on sovereign Pakistani soil. President Obama pledged to take boots off the ground and vowed to only apply “smart power” to conflict zones and flashpoints. He tried, and has succeeded, in making high tech protection a populist positon accepted by the mainstream electorate. This is not a compliment.

Some detractors of Snowden maintain there is an unsettling racialized component within this story. It is argued that since some President Obama antagonists are white, and not all applied the same level of work when Bush was President for eight years, their work is illegitimate or at least suspect. This to me is false. Snowden had Bush disenchantment and there is no question that Greenwald (How Would a Patriot Act?) and Poitras did as well.

President Obama doubled down on Bush’s surveillance policies and enhanced them dramatically in forming his strange interdependent political platform. The President relentlessly tries to suppress the image at home that his foreign policy is disliked by the world. This effort is the main reason for the surveillance and hence the whistleblowing. I will defend President Obama from the lily white Tea-Party and GOP at large, but that should be everyone’s limit.

In accord with Snowden skepticism, I have read Sean Wilentz’s disturbing tales of Snowden in the New Republic. He states that Snowden:

“. . . became furious about Obama’s domestic policies on a variety of fronts . . . he was offended by the . . . [new president’s] ban on assault weapons. [Snowden remarked,] ‘. . . I’m goddamned glad for the second amendment,’ Snowden wrote, in another chat. ‘Me and all my lunatic, gun-toting NRA compatriots would be on the steps of Congress before the C-SPAN feed finished.’ Snowden also condemned Obama’s economic policies as . . . a . . . scheme “to devalue the currency absolutely as fast as theoretically possible.” (He favored Ron Paul’s call for the United States to return to the gold standard.) In another chat-room exchange, Snowden debated the merits of Social Security.”

Wilentz writes that, “Snowden’s disgruntlement with Obama, in other words, was fueled by a deep disdain for progressive policies.” And just recently in reaction to the film, The New Republic continued its anti-Snowden barrage. We learn that this cannot be pure whistleblowing since Glenn Greenwald has had “conservative” views on immigration and even litigated in protection of white supremacist clients. The New Republic sees Snowden et al as makeshift progressives who haven’t earned their progressive stripes. Maybe there is a point here: Snowden’s own previous history of political activism was disproportionate to the act of leaking the essence of the NSA’s secrets. Even this is irrelevant though, in my view.

I tend to reject the defense of the President on the grounds of comparing him to Bush domestically. Even as the ACA and the ARRA are important signature President Obama achievements, the spying and reactionary positions on civil liberties are just far too extreme. The film conveys this well and that is what makes this movie excellent. Snowden states, “If all ends well, perhaps the demonstration that our methods work will embolden more to come forward.” So far he is correct and the film is quite popular. Snowden hoped that the work he did was just a tiny part in what would lead to the Internet Hydra Principle, where the erasure of one would only ensure that three more would pop up.

Lastly, allow me to reiterate that Snowden should not be judged personally. It is possible he had unsavory political views, but people do change and evolve.  He is a young man. For those that consider Snowden correct in principle but illegal in practice, again consider that William Binney’s legal assertions and complaints were met with harassment and punishment.

Snowden and Greenwald have a unique political versatility. It seems at one point or another they have occupied and navigated the multiple realms of progressivism, libertarianism, and the moderate areas in between.

Ultimately, my final word is that Citizenfour was extremely well done. While it seems to irk liberals (aka non-progressives) that Snowden and Greenwald may be apolitical and amoral opportunists, I simply judge them by the merit of their conclusions, which are , in my view, heroic.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Dan Falcone has a master’s degree in Modern American History from LaSalle University in Philadelphia and currently teaches secondary education. He has interviewed Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Richard Falk, William Blum, Medea Benjamin and Lawrence Davidson. He resides in Washington, DC.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014)

This review contains spoilers of a film currently in theaters

Director: Francis Lawrence

The third film of the Hunger Games series was recently released in theaters and has continued the conversation about the nature of political repression and resistance. Like the previous two films, this story deals with the oppression of the “districts” by the powerful Capitol, which had used a yearly violent “hunger games” event where each district had to pay a “tribute” of two citizens to fight to the death in a battle royale that was broadcast across the country. The previous film ended with a plot by some of the tributes in concert with a resistance movement to destroy the arena during the broadcast of the games. This destruction of the arena launched a revolution throughout the districts against the Capitol and is what sets the stage for this film.

The leader of the revolution gives a speech

The leader of the revolution gives a speech

Mockingjay Part 1 begins shortly after the previous film’s end. Instead of focusing on the larger society of this universe, most of the time we spend in this film is focused on the resistance movement that is leading a revolution against the Capitol, along with the ruins of the districts that the Capitol has violently destroyed. The main character, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) continues her role as the symbol of the resistance as she had in the previous films. The main difference in this film however is that the revolution was actively under way while in the previous film it was merely being anticipated. Katniss continues to be a unwilling hero and is constantly reluctant to help the resistance, often allowing her personal issues to get in the way of her dedication to the broader cause. For example, her partner from the games Peeta Mellark has been taken hostage by the Capitol and is being used to produce propaganda against the revolutionaries. She feels that he is being forced to denounce the revolution, but she becomes more concerned with saving him from his captors than trying to combat the propaganda that the Capitol has put out against the revolution. The revolutionary leaders are eager to have Katniss begin producing propaganda against the Capitol, as she is already a symbol for the revolution. While she does reluctantly agree, she adds the condition that Peeta (and other tributes) be freed and pardoned for their propaganda against the revolution. This decision upsets many of the revolutionaries but the compromise is made.

This personal motivation of hers is often portrayed as being more important to her than fighting the Capitol, until she is later shown first hand the destruction of her home district, which is when she begins to develop an even deeper opposition to the Capitol’s growing war against the districts. Once she begins to see the destructive nature of the Capitol, Katniss eventually comes around to helping the revolutionaries to a greater extent, but her motivation constantly remains highly personal and individualized. The other revolutionaries are sometimes frustrated by her selfishness and the film does a good job at portraying it as a major struggle between her and her comrades, a sort of critique of personal motivation in a time where great discipline is needed. While Katniss does eventually come around to supporting the revolution, her reluctance shows that she needed to learn to subvert her own interests to the interests of the broader movement. Although it is questionable how temporary her devotion is considering that her main goal remains rescuing Peeta.

Katniss speaks with the President of the Capitol

Katniss speaks with the President of the Capitol

The contrast between her personal motivation and the more collective mindset of the revolutionary movement is highlighted by the aesthetic portrayal of the resistance. The conditions that the revolutionaries live in resemble a sort of Ninteen Eighty Four type of society, where everyone wears the same jump suit, a military discipline is required from everyone, and goods and services are scarce. This way of portraying the resistance is an interesting choice that does not come off as a simple critique of their creeping authoritarian tendencies, but rather we are still meant to sympathize with the movement and see the necessity for that kind of discipline considering their conditions. Each film so far has had a different take on Panem (the fictional North American country in which the films take place). The first film focused on the  consumerist and joyous character of the Capitol, the second film had a different take on the Capitol that portrayed it as a Fascist society with military parades inspired by Triumph of the Will, and this film focused instead of the seemingly militaristic society that was attempting to overthrow the Capitol’s rule. While this film does not try to make obvious moralistic statements about how the resistance is structured, there seem to be no implied critiques of how they have conducted themselves up to this point, and their ability to fight the Capitol seems to be justification enough for why they exist in the form they do. The brutality of the Capitol is made clear in all three films, so there is not much room for critiquing the way the revolutionaries have waged their war so far.

The dystopian dining hall of the resistance

The dystopian dining hall of the resistance

The film spent a lot of time dealing with the production of propaganda by the revolutionaries instead of focusing on Hollywood style military battles between the good guys and the bad guys. Both the Capitol and the revolutionary movement focus much of their efforts on trying to win a media war against each other, with Peeta being used by the Capitol to discredit the revolutionaries, and Katniss being used to spread the revolutionary message. Unlike most major films however, propaganda is not seen as an inherently negative or dishonest endeavor but rather just another tool of conflict.

Like the previous films, Mockingjay continues to be a film about revolt and subversion of an oppressive system. It is to a large extent a vague struggle between the “good” heroes and the “evil” oppressors which leaves room for much interpretation. This vagueness will allow commentators from both the Left and the Right to claim it as promoting their message. The way in which the resistance is portrayed and the nature of political propaganda complicate the good/evil dichotomy to an extent and show that struggles against oppression can be complicated even in a world like the one depicted in the Hunger Games.

Viva Venezuela: Fighting for Socialism (2013)

Produced by: The Revolutionary Communist Group (UK)

VivaVen2Viva Venezuela: Fighting for Socialism is a documentary filmed during the last election of Hugo Chavez through his death in 2013. The film explores various aspects of the movement for socialism in Venezuela by interviewing activists, workers, and students in Venezuela as well as contrasting it with the struggle against austerity in the United Kingdom.

The film does not only attempt to follow the campaign of the PSUV and Chavez but rather focused on the rank and file of the movement in Venezuela. Very little time is devoted to Chavez or the leadership of the PSUV at all and instead we get a refreshing picture of what is going on in Venezuela by seeing those who are implementing the policies of Bolivarian socialism and the effects it has on the communities in question. This is quite a contrast to most documentaries about Venezuela which focus on Chavez as a figure rather than the overall social process of the movement for socialism in Venezuela.

While the film is mostly comprised of interviews of activists and workers, it also contains a sequence that shows the progress and characteristics of Venezuela’s “socialist city” Caribia.This particular project was considered one of Chavez’s “last projects” but the film demonstrates that it wasn’t just some initiative from above, but rather poor and working people are who make it run and plan how they want the city to work.

VivaVen3The British activists in the film make it clear that Venezuela is in a period of transitioning to socialism and is not there yet, pointing out that there are still rich capitalists there who want to stop this very transition. This is clear with continued battles between the government and opposition forces.

The film itself is a showcase of the process of transformation in Venezuela and serves as a good introductory piece to those who are not as familiar with what is taking place there. It can be a valuable resource for activists and educators looking to study the situation.

At the time of this post, the film can be viewed in its entirety online.

Jonah (2013)

This is a guest submission by Claire Smithson. Jonah is a short film that premiered at the most recent Sundance Film Festival about a small town which is transformed into a major tourist destination and the problems associated with that transformation. The film can presently be viewed online in its entirety.

Director: Kibwe Tavares

The beach before the transformation

The beach before the transformation

Excess and destruction seem to be the ongoing themes of conscientious fiction and film in recent years, ranging everywhere from totalitarian societies in series like The Hunger Games to consumerist culture, which becomes a living hell of disillusionment and chaos. Kibwe Tavares of Robots of Brixton fame explores the latter in his aesthetically dramatic short Jonah, an exploration of individual and social identity which undergoes devastating transformations under the onslaught of capitalism.

Visual Artistry

Visual poignancy is first and foremost in this Factory Fifteen and Film Four production, employing a series of techniques that switch from jarring first-person point of view to sweeping long-shots of a land which has been ravaged by riches. Blinding illuminations ascend into the skyline of a once peaceful and pristine landscape, threatening to topple the frail structures and foundations they reside on – an instant allusion to the statement that capitalistic excess has little substance to effectively sustain a society. The speed and seemingly “organic” metamorphosis from a quiet seaside town into a gaudy tourist mecca emphasize the rapidity and ease with which greed and consumerist culture can completely take over a society like a monstrous entity, and the director’s manipulation of the camera and how it pans through once happy side streets as they are turned into neon franchised sleaze-holes is deeply distressing. Tavares executes each scene with precision and bewilderment, careful to capture the shifting emotions of both town and people as they grow sick and exhausted from their deteriorating society. This plague is also echoed in the “originator” of this sickness, the mythological jumping fish, whose once vibrantly-colored exterior is smothered with hooks and tires and other tokens of destructive waste culture.

Loss of Identity

The city transformed into a tourist destination

The city transformed into a tourist destination

What is particularly striking is the sense of identity and its importance on both personal and public scales. The buoyant and happy exchanges between the two friends at the beginning of the film, laughing and casually taking photos from a stolen camera reveal a fascination with how they perceive one another, which is instantly changed with the emergence of the almost Biblical jumping fish which will come to define the protagonist and his home, initially fulfilling his desire to turn the sleepy village into an exciting metropolis with “Buckingham Palaces and Taj Mahals.” He rises into an iconic celebrity figure, hailed as the “Fish Man” who revels in the excess of brightly-lit bars and strip joints while his friend gradually grows distant and casts one last lost look before disappearing entirely.

As life continues to crumble, so does the stamina of the tourist industry itself – and the very excesses which once made it a flourishing hub of activity are now intimately tied to its demise and a faux sense of escape and healing. Bearing with it a strong post-colonial tone, destructive influences of fetishized sex, misogyny and alcohol lead to further misery and oppression as the culture turns into a binge-drinking hell hole, reflective of the poverty and mental/social disruption it plays, particularly in African nations. There is no redemption or way out which can offer empowerment and healing, and sex, drugs, or alcohol addiction recovery is non-existent – rather than intervention, or even a bold revelation, the immediate world is forced to stretch itself out to exhaustion and collapses in on itself. Decaying signs like “Fishbucks Coffee” and the ominous “Coming Soon” banner which raggedly hangs below a silhouette of the half-constructed “Raj Mahal” signifies a land of forgotten dreams which have rotted away into oblivion, mere shadows of their former idealistic glory. This is now a sordid place which has lost its true identity through the mass consumerist rush, whose citizens are left without a name in the shadows of a town whose capitalistic identity made it known world-wide.

Return to Origins

Consequences of the transformation

Consequences of the transformation

The protagonist’s identity in turn is distorted, and left a withered old man just like the landscape he has so dramatically transformed. His pursuit of the jumping fish resembles a lack of responsibility, a vengeful attempt at redemption and a bitter disposition towards his fate as the man who gained everything and lost it. His chaotic struggle and the rewinding of time which lead right into the ending credits suggest not a return to origins, but serve as a reminder of what has been lost in the name of greed and excess. William Blake once suggested that “The Path of Excess leads to the Tower of Wisdom”, but there is no tower – physical or symbolic – to restore the lost identity and appreciation for the simpler values of life, only a sorrowful diminishing of what was. Visually stunning and metaphorically sublime, Jonah is the modern myth which encapsulates the perfect cautionary tale, and resonates a changing tide which continues to sicken the world both on and off-screen.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

This review contains spoilers for a film currently in theaters

Director:  Francis Lawrence


Katniss travels for her tour of the districts

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the sequel to the film Hunger Games and is the next adaptation of the Suzanne Collins novels of the same name. Like the first film, Catching Fire is primarily about oppression and resistance and ultimately, revolution.

This film picks up where the last left off, the main character Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is pressured to go on a tour of the entire country to placate the increasing revolutionary feeling of the people outside of the oppressive capital. During her tour it becomes clear to Kaniss that the entire event is an attempt to pacify the population and distract them from their real problems which is most evidenced by her first stop when the high level of security clearly represents the repressive nature of the capital. A sort of public relations struggle between her and the leader of the nation emerges as he puts increased pressure on her to do the will of the central government.


Riots against the security forces

Eventually, the government announces that there will be a special “hunger games” (the event where each of the “districts” of the government has to contribute one “tribute” in a free for all battle to the death as punishment for a failed rebellion by the districts against the capital some time in the past) that will be comprised of past winners. This move is made to quell the popularity of Katniss and reduce the chances of her popularity as a symbol of resistance.

From this point in the film on, plot twists and developments reveal that a new rebellion by the districts is brewing and that the tributes in the new hunger games are conspiring to foment the uprising. Katniss throughout both films is a sort of reluctant hero of rebellion and remains so until the end of this film where she eventually destroys the very arena where the hunger games are being played in a defiant act which helps to spark a much broader uprising. The film ends with her learning that her home district has been destroyed by the capital and implies that she will seek revenge.


The dictator gives a speech

One major contrast of this sequel to the first is the use of a more explicitly fascist aesthetic. This comes through most clearly during a scene in the capitol that is reminiscent of the first shots of Rome in the film Gladiator. The first Hunger Games relied on a much more subtle way of showing the repressive nature of the regime of the capitol. Besides the existence of the hunger games themselves which are the most obvious form of oppression, the first film showed the capital’s culture as similar to contemporary capitalism: joyous masses being distracted by superficial pastimes like obsessing over game shows with a very bright fashion sense. This is in contrast to more traditional depictions of authoritarian dystopian futures like in Nineteen Eighty Four where everything is dark and bleak. But in this sequel, we are shown more traditional dystopian aspects of a future society that come through as an anti-fascist commentary.

On top of painting a relatively detailed dystopian world, Catching Fire is also to a limited extent a call to revolution. Besides being a major plot point that is revealed towards the end, in both films the air of discontent by the masses of people is an important part of how the world the films operate. Donald Sutherland even recently went as far as to say the he wanted the film to “stir up a revolution” which goes to show that this interpretation of the film as a call to revolt is not incredibly far fetched.