“Citizenfour”—Big Brother’s Doppelganger



This Academy-Award-winning documentary for 2015 opens with a request by Edward Snowden for an encrypted line to ensure his e-mail will not be intercepted and be a target of government surveillance. Calling himself “citizenfour”, only the director Laura Poitras (who also received a Pulitzer) understands the importance of this request and can implement the encryption code easily. Then begins the spellbinding story of Snowden, our decade’s most famous whistleblower, in a Hong Kong hotel room in June 2013.  Citizenfour.

“Just walk me through it,” Glenn Greenwald , journalist for The Guardian (UK) instructs Snowden. And we go through the unraveling of our privacy  as Snowden tells his story. One camera shot underscores the immense reach of Big Brother. When the twenty-nine-year old analyst enters a password, he asks for his “magic mantle of power,” a red sweatshirt. Pulling it over his head, the boyish Snowden looks like a child with a flashlight reading a scary nighttime story under his blanket. He looks at the hotel phone, knowing it can hide a chip for monitoring the conversation in the room. This is a James Bond nightmare. Only it is not fiction.

This movie could have been like the great whistleblowing thriller “All the President’s Men,” in its dramatization of Deep Throat. Snowden shares his most shocking information with Greenwald via scribbled handwritten notes. Seeing the ultimate computer geek resort to writing notes — then tearing them into tiny pieces — is a powerful statement indeed.

However, “Citizenfour”, for this viewer, devotes too much screen time to the codes which are encrypted (lots of black screens with white random alphabet scattered throughout) instead of the Ed Snowden who worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, as a subcontractor for the National Security Agency. Retired NSA technical director William Binney is also interviewed, discussing the perils of government access to personal communication. He supports Snowden’s credibility.

More footage is needed to humanize a courageous young computer analyst. Yes, he is naïve in not realizing the impact his whistleblowing would have on his life and those he cared most for. But Snowden is also idealistic. His motivation in leaking the surveillance tactics of the US government through sophisticated covert cyber systems, both domestic and foreign, was to shed light on its pervasiveness.

The only emotion truly heartfelt through this documentary is when Snowden is visibly upset, and momentarily at a loss for words when his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, calls to say she is being watched and questioned by the government. Snowden has left her behind when he flees to Hong Kong in order to protect her. Lindsay had not known the reason for his sudden departure. One of the minor revelations of “Citizenfour” is that Mills joins him in Moscow, where he is granted asylum, and they now live together in a government apartment, one of the final scenes of this film. An unsettling thought for this viewer: The government knows where they both are now.

Were the Snowden documents simply revealing or actually gamechanging? That’s the question, and I would have liked to see more on the issue of balancing surveillance and homeland security, on power and profit. One shouldn’t underestimate the value of revelation, or truth, alone. This impacts all of us. And our sense of privacy and freedom.

Note: See the website deadline.com for the story of the difficulty finding financing and distribution for “Citizenfour”.



“House of Cards” –On the verge of collapse

House of Cards Season 3

In Season 3 of Netflix’s award-winning series, “House of Cards”, the Beltway game is passing Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) by and only he seems not to know it. This season is wife Claire Underwood’s story. Whatever the subplots and character arcs, this series continues to hinge upon the tortuous dynamics between Frank and Claire Underwood. They’ve been combustible before, but never quite like this. And now it is Claire’s turn to get center stage.

All thirteen episodes again are ready for binge-viewing and, are made for devouring before catching your breath and dissecting the scenes. Claire (Robin Wright), equally matched in jugular-jabbing duplicity to her husband, still stands by her man, but unlike Alicia Florrick in “The Good Wife”, Claire has yet to bloom. Her impending blossoming will be her husband’s undoing.

Showing hints of vulnerability — mainly through the voice and eyes of newly hired presidential biographer Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks), Francis isn’t about to become anyone’s target. At turns revealing and concealing, Francis takes us on a journey to his inner hell. And author Yates is the catalyst for undoing the Underwood marriage and encouraging Claire to assert herself.

In an early episode, after first telling the camera that visiting his father’s grave makes him seem more human, Francis nonchalantly and joyfully urinates on the gravestone. In episode four he desecrates a crucifix while purportedly going to the cathedral for spiritual guidance.

“We’re murderers, Francis,” Claire tells him. “No we’re not,” her husband replies without affect. “We’re survivors.” Whatever it takes to survive is the only lesson worth mastering.

House of Cards 3

“House of Cards” is still playing with a full deck but the scabrous King and Queen are ready to collapse on each other, their marriage growing more wobbly in each succeeding scene. Spacey and Wright’s performances remain assured and extraordinary.

That Claire must ask her husband as a supplicant in her own eyes makes her vomit, and her growing popularity with voters is what Frank desperately needs at the same time he fears her influence. In a pivotal scene with an American radical imprisoned for his homosexuality, Claire sees the life she could have had, underscored later on by the presidential biographer Yates.



The narrative’s dedication to Claire’s complex, perhaps inevitable, revolt against Frank keeps the series fascinating and surprising. This may just be the most well-written political drama ever produced for television or film by the incomparable Beau Willimon (of “Ides of March” fame).

Binge view if you can!

Note:  For my reviews of “House of Cards” season 1 and season 2, see February 11, 2013 (Season 1) and March 12, 2014 (Season 2).



“Life Itself”—A Beautiful Mind

Roger Ebert 2013
Roger Ebert 2013

Based upon the memoir by the same name, “Life Itself” is the autobiography of  movie critic extraordinaire, Roger Ebert. This documentary is as much about courage and loyalty as it is about the life of the most famous and brilliant movie critic we have known. Tremendously life-affirming and soul-stirring, “Life Itself” is a portrayal of a man so comfortable with himself that he is always in the present moment, in the face of tremendous challenges towards the end of his life.

That Roger Ebert is described by one friend as “nice, but not that nice” says it all: a personality who loved “big boobs”, booze, and being the center of attention as well as relentlessly following his passion for movies, the medium he considered unique in eliciting empathy in the viewer. Yet there is also the other Roger Ebert: whose remarkable marriage to his soul-mate, Chaz Hammelsmith, took place when he was fifty years old. Chaz’s devotion to Roger and his continuing enthusiasm in the face of dire health are part of why this movie works so well.

Chaz & Roger
Chaz & Roger Ebert




Ebert’s tenacious commitment to the cinema as an artistic expression like no other eventually elevated movie criticism to the stature of a Pulitzer Prize, which he won as the first and only movie critic to do so. His championship of emerging young filmmakers not only focuses on Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and Errol Morris but also Ava Duvernay (director of “Selma”).

In addition to Ebert’s pioneering recognition of cinema’s contribution to the art world, “Life Itself” is the story of a beautiful mind who obstinately stood his ground against his colleague Gene Siskel in humorous and sometimes cantankerously acerbic banter. Also a homage to his dignity in the face of a painful cancer that severely limited his ability to critique the movies he so dearly loved, the film presents Ebert’s warmth and humor with an unfiltered intimacy at once painful and reassuring. Having lost all or most of his ability to speak, move, eat, or drink, the unflickering and mischievous twinkle in his eyes remains constant for a man who still sees beauty and joy in the world. That love of life with friends and family is the heart of this movie and what the viewer is privileged to witness.

A candid, sometimes brutally uncomfortable depiction of the end of an extraordinary individual’s life, this film is, nonetheless, a triumph to behold. “Life Itself” is truly “two thumbs up”.

“Wild Tales”—Nothing Tame About This

Wild Tales
Wild Tales

Nominated for the 2015 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film (unfortunately losing to “Ida”), “Wild Tales” is like no other film I have seen in recent years. This dark series of six vignettes channeling “Twilight Zone” and “Black Mirror” is the surreal creation of Argentine writer-director Damián Szifrón and produced by Pedro Almodóvar (of “Volver” and “All About My Mother” fame). Grudges, minor insults, infidelity, and heinous crimes all lead to mayhem, revenge, and murder on a cataclysmic, sometimes savage scale.

While the first tale is my favorite, all six have scathing, psychological portraits of individuals who have a short fuse, a great sense of entitlement, and/or little capacity for forgiveness.

The characters of Wild Tales are unpredictable: civilized with good manners one minute and barbaric the next. Each of the Wild Tales is darkly humorous yet horrifying, signature trademarks of Almodóvar.

This movie plays to the viewer’s wish to enact revenge on anyone who’s ever wronged you, even a slight such as rude service from a waiter, a critical review, or someone driving irresponsibly on the highway.   We’re all familiar with those thoughts, but few of us act on them. The characters in this film do. The nuances are perfectly articulated, the observations primal, and the tragedies heart-wrenching and unexpected. In addition, “Wild Tales” is a social and political commentary on the divide between the have-nots and the have-a-lots, a chasm that reaches the breaking point in several of the tales. No one is tamed in ”Wild Tales”—it’s a jungle out there.