Citizen Four: the Making of an American Myth

There’s a telling scene in the Academy Award winning documentary Citizen Four. Glenn Greenwald (hereafter GG) is sitting in a hotel room with whistleblower Edward Snowden and Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill. Cinematographer Laura Poitras is, as ever, invisible behind the camera, a fly on the wall capturing the historic moment for prosperity (oops, I mean posterity).

Snowden, the computer geek with a conscience, is earnestly explaining his selfless motives. It’s not about me, he keeps repeating. The problem with the American media today, he stresses, is that it is personality based. All this focus on celebrities distracts the American public from the real issues, like the fact that they live in a police state that controls every thought they think.

I don’t want this to be about me, Snowden insists; I want it to be bout the mechanisms of the thought police.

Meanwhile the camera catches GG in an unguarded moment. To me, it looks like he’s drooling, the dollar signs flashing before his lizard eyes.

But, he says to Snowden (and here I paraphrase), we can turn you into the biggest celebrity since Clint Eastwood! Like Clint, you’re the anti-hero every theatre-going, book-buying American has been longing for, the lone wolf who isn’t afraid of the machine.

Perhaps it’s because I view GG as a crass opportunist and a hypocrite who sold his soul to a billionaire, but I truly believe I could see the wheels spinning in his devious brain.

Oh, the schmaltz! he seems to be thinking.

How ironic, I thought, we’re two minutes into the documentary, GG has just made his appearance, and already he’s maneuvering naive, trusting, vulnerable Ed Snowden into doing exactly the opposite of what Snowden wants to do.

I sense what GG is thinking it, but he doesn’t say it. He doesn’t say, “Ed, if you’ll just leave your fate in my hands, Laura and I will be rich and famous forever! We’ll even be able to cut dashing Jeremy Scahill in on the deal. But best of all, we can exploit you while fighting for truth and justice!”

It’s obvious what he’s thinking, but GG doesn’t say, “Of course, Ed, as the archetypal sacred king who sacrifices himself for the community, you’ll pay their price for our success; you’ll get to live in exile for the rest of your life, if you’re lucky.”

Having no alternative, submissive Snowden relents, just like dominating GG knew he would.

This is half of what ruined Citizen Four for me, the spectacle of seeing GG manipulate Snowden into becoming the celebrity he didn’t want to be. It would have been okay, I suppose, if this initial betrayal had been addressed or rationalized in the film. But it’s never mentioned again.

And that’s how the fable of Ed Snowden unfolds in Citizen Four. His handlers at GG Industries Inc. embrace him as cannon fodder for their careers, and happily turn him into a Hollywood star, a celebrity and perpetual money-making myth for the faux gauche, in the mold of Dan Ellsberg.

GG Industries Inc.

Fifteen years ago I interviewed Dan Ellsberg, America’s most famous whistleblower. Not counting Phil Agee and John Stockwell, who have been relegated to the dustbin of history by the faux gauche, Ellsberg was the King of Whistleblowers until Bradley Manning and img-fbvalentinephoenix_163926464348Edward Snowden came along.

I called Ellsberg up at his home in Berkeley and the first thing he said was (and here I paraphrase), “You’ll never understand me, because you’re not a celebrity. You don’t know what it’s like to be a celebrity. You don’t know how being a celebrity changes everything.”

And it’s true, being a celebrity like Ellsberg, or GG, or Snowden, or Bob Dylan creates its special kind of neurasthenia, a complex of neuroses that render the celebrity incapable of honest self-awareness or genuine human interaction with other human beings.

Alas, this celebrity virus, as Ed Snowden astutely observed before he was infected by GG, has perverted American culture and made infected Americans incapable of understanding or empathizing with their victims at home and abroad.

In cahoots with the bloodthirsty billionaires like Pierre Omidyar, who shamelessly exploit the poor and profit majestically from America’s consumer culture, celebrity leaders like Ellsberg and Dylan from the older generation, and GG and Snowden from the Now Generation, direct all of America’s latent revolutionary impulses into America’s unique brand of post-modern fascism.

Citizen Four is a perfect example how a celebrity like GG is able to transform an individual into a propagandist for fascism, although, of course, it purports to be the opposite, like Clint Eastwood hiding his fascism behind the myth of the rugged American individualist.

The beauty of this joint capitalist venture is that it is perpetually reinforcing itself and mutating in ever more resistant strains, in so far as the celebrity culture our celebrity leaders create (in their own image) makes the American audience ever weaker and incapable of fighting off the virus.

If you view GG as a celebrity, if you are a member of his fan club and buy the products GG Industries Inc. sells, you are already one of the Walking Dead and will never admit to yourself that you automatically choose to ignore the smoke and mirrors Citizen Four relies upon to deceive its audience, and the Big Lie at the heart of its corrupted soul. If you’re a full-fledged member of celebrity culture (perhaps you’re a Libertarian?), you cannot view Citizen Four critically. You will see it only as a blow against surveillance state, and not as a propaganda film that, on the one hand, protects the CIA at Snowden’s behest while, on the other hand, exploiting him and turning him into the celebrity he did not want to be.

If so, there’s no point venturing further into this review.

However, if you’re willing to be a bit iconoclastic, then consider the case of Bob Dylan, the aging crooner once considered the untutored voice of his generation, now reverently warbling Frank Sinatra tunes.

In a recent interview for AARP (being 65, I get a subscription), Dylan accurately explained how the Omidyar oligarchs who rule America have betrayed the poor and working classes in pursuit of their own glorification.

Dylan said: “Some wealthy billionaire who can buy 30 cars and maybe buy a sports team,” (or a news organization like The Intercept, he might have added), “is that guy happy? Does it make him happy giving his money away to foreign countries?” (I imagine he’s referring to Omidyar, who gave half a million to the organization that coordinated US-backed political actions in Ukraine, leading up to CIA coup in Kiev.)

Dylan continued, “Is there more contentment in that than in giving it here to the inner cities and creating jobs? The government’s not going to create jobs. It doesn’t have to. People have to create jobs, and these big billionaires are the ones who can do it. We don’t see that happening. We see crime and inner cities exploding with people who have nothing to do, turning to drink and drugs. They could all have work created for them by these hotshot billionaires. For sure, that would create a lot of happiness.”

So what does Dylan’s rant about dead-beat billionaires have to do with Citizen Four? Well, it’s two things. First, it’s the same lack of honest self-awareness that enables a celebrity millionaire like Dylan to criticize a system he fully supports. Second, it highlights the essential classist message of Citizen Four, which targets the bourgeois political class that can afford encryption devices and that actually gives a shit what a hypocrite like Bob Dylan thinks, based on his celebrity status.

Call it hypocrisy in the service of the bourgeois; that works.

Yes, Dylan is right in smacking Omidyar for funding foreign subversive political organizations and participating in CIA coups, just as Citizen Four is right to criticize the surveillance state. But the producers of Citizen Four at GG Industries Inc. are, at the same, manipulating and profiting off the celebrity culture they purport to hate, ignoring people’s real needs, and, in the process of manipulating perceptions, covering up for the CIA honchos and oligarchs who comprise America’s ruling Cult of Death.

This is, of course, the essence of any self-serving, self-aggrandizing capitalist venture like Citizen Four. It is also the defining characteristic of entrepreneur GG and his company, GG Industries, Inc. They are so committed to creating myths about their importance and value, and so reinforced by adoring fan clubs, that they have no incentive to admit their deceptions or correct their own exploitive behaviors.

Call Citizen Four propaganda in the service of the bourgeois; that works.

Propaganda is propaganda, whether left, right, or in between

In the process of achieving fame and fortune, the produces of Citizen Four leave any contradictory facts about Snowden, or their own motives and manipulations, on the cutting room floor, and skim over many other less appealing aspects of his story.

Billed as an unfiltered portrait of Snowden, Citizen Four is actually the biggest fluff piece ever contrived. The producers are incapable of generating a discouraging word or making a critical comment about Snowden in the entire advertisement. And thus it is unbelievable.

Sure, you want to believe. I want to believe, like in the X Files. This is America after all; we’re trained to swallow all sorts of shit, like the existence of an Iron Age god that blesses America and gave Palestine to the Jews; or that Tommy Jefferson didn’t know that slavery was wrong; or that the CIA is a gang of bumbling idiots that can’t shoot straight and isn’t worth exposing or even reporting about on a daily basis.

The producers of Citizen Four count on the gullibility of celebrity-stunned Americans, especially the faux gauche looking for celebrity heroes they can pin their delusions of being anything other than bourgeois on. They play shamelessly upon our emotions.

In the early part of the film, good wife Poitras films Snowden endlessly over eight days in his cozy Hong Kong hotel room. She and he don’t dare venture outside, and we only see the scenes Poitras wants us to see. We bring suspended disbelief to the experience, and are rewarded with reality TV.

We see our hero sitting on the bed in his t-shirt, looking lost. He has wonderfully cinematic moments of unrehearsed angst, wondering if the CIA will snatch and snuff him, or if he’ll ever see his girlfriend and family again. One can almost hear Poitras saying to herself, “You can’t make this shit up.”

Despite the fact that we’re being manipulated, it’s impossible to be a faux gauche and not love Ed Snowden. He’s so genuine. He’s also articulate, especially in his instructions to the journalists not to divulge anything about the CIA.

As a dedicated counter-revolutionary, Snowden is emphatic that CIA people – whom he relates to, having been one – are real people who could get hurt if their sources and methods, let alone names and locations in, say, Donbass, were to be revealed to Americans, who have no business knowing what their betters are up to behind their backs.

Perhaps it is this fascistic streak that GG uses to absolve himself of guilt for turning Snowden into a perpetual money-making machine for GG Industries Inc.?

In any event, Snowden’s loyalty to the post-modern American fascism is the overarching but unstated fact that, in GG’s cunning hands, relieves him, Poitras and Scahill of any responsibility to their audience. Because Snowden is a fascist, they have no responsibility to use Citizen Four to attack fascism, or even mention the word. Fuck the people of America! According to the sacred code of journalism, it is Snowden alone to whom they are responsible and owe their loyalty.

How convenient, given that loveable, self-sacrificing Ed has instructed them not to reveal CIA secrets.

This instruction, memorialized at the start of the film, is the cover-your-ass clause in Citizen Four’s deal with the devil. It’s what, in the world of celebrity hypocrites and the petty bourgeois, makes it ok for the lawyers at GG Industries Inc. to work with “government stake-holders” (a euphemism for the CIA?) and assure them that no documents will be released that hurt them (the CIA?).

Citizen Four asks us to sympathize with Snowden and portrays him as a sympathetic character, which to some extent he is. But it does this while ignoring his fascism and the fact that the existence of the CIA is antithetical to the democratic institutions Snowden professes, ingenuously, to love.

Citizen Four asks us to forget that CIA people are the scum of the earth, chopping off hands and feet, murdering kids, sabotaging and subverting governments (as in Kiev), and causing untold misery to millions of people, at home and abroad, who, sadly for them, aren’t celebrity journalists.

Citizen Four, like any other bourgeois, faux gauche, celebrity-based journalists enterprise, constructs and sells illusions for why it should protect the CIA, when, in fact, they are doing so merely to assure their enduring fame and fortune.

Citizen Four asks us to overlook the fact that GG Industries Inc. is very likely sitting on the biggest cache of CIA documents ever to fall into the hands of private citizens. It asks us to overlook this possibility, because Snowden has sacrificed himself for us.

Citizen Four asks us to believe the myth that our self-anointed heroes are serving our interests, and not just entertaining us with myths and fairy tales that distract us from the bars on our cages.

Rather than help us retrieve our freedom and autonomy from the Cult of Death – the Omidyar oligarchs and their bureaucratic allies – that rules America, Citizen Four asks us to be satisfied with merely having our consciousness raised about NSA surveillance, which proceeds apace.

Citizen Four does everything in its power to prevent us from insisting that GG Industries Inc. turn on loveable Ed Snowden and release his treasure trove of documents, the way Bradley Manning and Julian Assange did with the Collateral Murder video, with all the consequences that entails.

Now there’s a fairy tale you could believe in, right? GG brings down the CIA!

I don’t think so.

How It Ends

Citizen Four is, after all, a propaganda film espousing the virtues of the faux gauche and its self-induced delusion, and self-perpetuating illusion, that the capitalist system is capable of correcting itself. It also proves there is big money to be made by tweaking fascism and the empire, which is why Hollywood embraced the film as its own.

It’s also pretty dull, as far as moving pictures go. GG’s plotting in the cramped hotel room is boring at best, and utterly predictable, as we all know what happened. Snowden sees the writing is on the wall; as GG constantly reminds him, he has to get the story out fast, before Snowden changes his mind, or someone or something gobbles up the goose that lays the golden eggs.

There’s little humor. Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill is portrayed as a sort of funny villain; he squirms, twitches, smiles sheepishly and exits stage right. Was he a naughty boy? Indeed, after the initial release, his masters send his hard drives to the toolshed and drill them into oblivion (after, one assumes, Brit intelligence downloads the documents, with their precious revelations about what the CIA is up to in Merry Old).

After the initial release of documents, and comments by Wolf Blitzer, Poitras divides the film into the story of sorry Ed Snowden, and the story of ecstatic GG. We follow Snowden as he attempts to disguise himself, and then slips out the back door into a black hole, only to reappear in Moscow’s main airport, sending the usual encrypted emails. Having assured the CIA he won’t tattle, Snowden eventually retires into honorable exile with his girlfriend.

Will the US government lift sanctions on certain Russians if Snowden is sent home? Will Snowden get his own reality TV show?

And then we follow intrepid GG as he dances down the Yellow Brick Road to fame and fortune, a journey interrupted only once, when the bloody Brits detain his partner David. We watch NSA officials lie and squirm, then go about their business as if nothing happened. Obama shrugs it all off.

We’re left to wonder, will The Intercept ever report about events in Ukraine?

Oh, and there’s a cameo by dashing Jeremy Scahill!

Otherwise, you know how it ends.

Douglas Valentine is the author of The Phoenix Program: America’s Use of Terror in Vietnam.

Douglas Valentine is the author of The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America’s War on Drugs, and The Strength of the Pack: The Personalities, Politics, and Espionage Intrigues that Shaped the DEA.