“Terminal F/Chasing Edward Snowden” - John Goetz and Poul-Erik Heilbuth (2015)

The systematic and unlawful invasion or privacy undertaken by the US National Security Agency (NSA) that was revealed by Edward Snowden has been the subject of a number of film presentations. One of these, a succinct coverage of the particular events surrounding Snowden’s activities in Hong Kong and his subsequent escape to Russia, is the documentary Terminal F/Chasing Edward Snowden (aka Terminal F).  This 58-minute Danish-German production evidently made for television was directed by John Goetz and Poul-Erik Heilbuth, and it has a Danish title of "Snowdens Store Flugt", which means  “Snowden’s Great Escape” in English.  

Since the focus of this film is more on what happened to Edward Snowden after he made his earthshaking revelations, it serves as a useful companion piece and sequel to Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour (2014), which centred around Snowden’s original meeting in Hong Kong with journalists Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, and Poitras.  Of course, both films provide an overview of the Snowden saga and can be seen alone, but I think seeing them in sequence has merits.  Qualitatively, the two films are rather different, since Citizenfour captures the here-and-now feeling of Snowden in the very act of first communicating what he has to offer, while Terminal F is a necessarily more retrospective account, in the fashion of most documentary films.

Although Terminal F lacks Citizenfour’s history-in-the-making immediacy, it does have its own unique virtue of presenting Snowden’s story from two contrasting angles: that of the prey and that of the hunter.   The form of the hunter, of course, is taken by the often shadowy and punitive offices of the US government.

The film largely consists of interviews with a number of the key players in this story, and these interviews have been skilfully edited and interlaced together in order to tell the story without too much narration from the filmmakers.  These key players interviewed are

  • Edward Snowden, who is shown in Moscow, reflecting on the events that have led him there.
  • People supporting Snowden
    • Lonnie Snowden, the father of Edward Snowden.
    • Robert Tibbo, a human rights lawyer.
  • The Guardian journalists who went to Hong Kong to get the story out
    • Glenn Greenwald, the lawyer and journalist who went to Hong Kong to interview Snowden on behalf of The Guardian.
    • Ewen MacAskill, a senior journalist for The Guardian specializing in defence and intelligence.
  • The opposing perspective on Snowden
    • Michael Hayden, a retired US Air Force general who was NSA director from 1999-2005 and CIA director from 2006-2009.  He provides the government’s view of Snowden: that he is a coward and a traitor to his country.
  • The Wikileaks people who engineered Snowden’s great escape to Russia.
    • Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder who while seeking to avoid extradition and prosecution is confined to the Ecuadoran embassy in London.
    • Sarah Harrison, a British journalist and close Assange advisor who played a key role in helping Snowden get out.
The story of Terminal F passes through three acts. And even from the early states of the film, there is an interestingly crafted artificial dialogue between Snowden and Michael Hayden concerning the motivation and justification of what Snowden has done to reveal the NSA’s activities. 

1. Snowdens’ Encounter with The Guardian Journalists in Hong Kong.
The first section details how Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill of The Guardian came to Hong Kong in early June 2013 and immediately began publishing stories about what Snowden has revealed. .

When Snowden’s activities are revealed, as planned, on June 9th, it seems that the whole world starts looking for him, and he has to go underground for his own safety.  As Robert Tibbo remarks at one point, there was definite evidence that Snowden’s life was definitely in danger.

2.  Getting out of Hong Kong
Three days after Snowden goes underground, Sarah Harrison arrives in Hong Kong to take charge of the Wikileaks’ attempts to rescue him.  There is extensive testimony from Harrison, and she comes across as a remarkable person.  Snowden calls her “one of the most incredibly great women I know”.  He also expresses his gratitude for what Wikileaks ultimately did – they were the only organization that took action to protect him, as opposed just being interested in his story.  (In a brief comment on that issue, MacAskill agonizes over the fact that The Guardian probably could have done more to help Snowden.)
Snowden was reluctant to leave Hong Kong, but Wikileaks warned him that he had no choice.  Wikileaks buys more than a dozen tickets out of Hong Kong in order to confuse the US pursuers.  But a key factor in Snowden’s ultimately successful escape was that the US pursuers made two important mistakes that delayed their attempts to extradite Snowden.  They mistakenly entered the wrong middle name on the Snowden extradition order, and they failed to cancel Snowden’s passport until after he had passed through the airline gate and taken off with Harrison for Moscow.

3.  Snowden in Moscow
Without a valid passport, Snowden, always accompanied by Harrison, is confined for 40 days to a small room with no window and no shower in Terminal F of the Moscow airport.  During this period the Russian government offers Snowden a deal if he will work with their own intelligence bureau, but Snowden refuses.

The US FBI tries to get Snowden’s father, Lonnie, to go to Moscow and lure him back to the United States.  But there’s a catch.  Lonnie Snowden says that they tell him, “you understand that once we get there, we’re going to need to check your son out to make sure he’s OK medically”.  Yeah right.  That is not the kind of friend you can trust. 

Snowden proceeds to lodge asylum requests with 21 European countries, but they are all denied or ignored, presumably in response to US pressuring.  Venezuela and Bolivia do offer asylum to Snowden, but there seems to be no way for him to get there. 

One possibility seems to present itself when Bolivian president Evo Morales arrives in Moscow on his presidential aircraft to attend a conference for gas-exporting countries.  Presidential aircraft enjoy international protection and immunity, but when Morales attempts to return home, his plane (without the suspected Snowden onboard) is forced to land in Austria after France, Spain, and Italy deny it access to their airspace (again presumably at the behest of the US authorities).

In the end the US government fails to capture Snowden, but it remains uncompromising.  We are left at the end with the strident phrase from Senator Dianne Feinstein, “I want to see him caught . . . and brought back for trial!” [1].

In Terminal F the personal character of Edward Snowden is much less in focus than in Citizenfour.  Here in Terminal F, in fact, Snowden is not seen so much as a master of his fate and is seen more as a quarry on his own that is hunted by some organizations and aided by others.  In other words in this film, we see things from the outside.  Nevertheless, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the manufactured debate between Michael Hayden (representing the US intelligence community and its concern for security) and Ed Snowden (representing the concern for privacy rights).  Thus both sides were given ample opportunity to present their cases.

Hayden’s position is straightforward, and he expresses smug contempt for what Snowden did and his attempts to escape punishment.  At one point Hayden complains that Snowden had the hubris to take action as just one man in opposition to the entire US intelligence community of 100,000 people.  (It is difficult to ascertain just how big is the US intelligence community, but we can be assured that it is huge [2].)

To be sure, any government does have its own rights to privacy.  For one thing, governments  hold records of their citizens and employees, the exposure of which would constitute a violation of their own privacy.  And governments engage in interactions with their societies that should sometimes be held confidence.  In addition, Snowden did break the rules of his employment, although  he also strove to restrict his revelations to unlawful NSA policies and to avoid putting individual government operators at risk. 

However and on the other side of the ledger, there are larger issues and themes that should be included when considering the relative merit of Snowden’s actions.  For example Alfred North Whitehead, in his Adventures of Ideas, emphasized just how long it took for the original ideas of human rights to come to full realization [3].  He traces its first stages, starting from the Platonic doctrine of the human soul, and how those ideas were then assimilated into the early Christian religion.  Then, after many wrong turns and dead ends, they slowly came to further fruition in the form 18th century democratic republics in the United States and France.  But even in the 19th century slavery was still widespread – a phenomenon that was in direct contradiction to the original Platonic and Christian notions about the fundamental and primordial value of the human soul. The Abolitionists that arose in that period were like Snowden – they were in opposition to the commonly accepted, but immoral, slavery practice of their communities.  They were the outsiders, the whistle-blowers. They consulted their own souls and realized that slavery was not only intolerable, but that it was entirely irreconcilable with the basic principles by which they were supposed to live.  They acted on those principles, and today we hallow what they did.  Their actions, in the view of Whitehead, led to the full realization of the democratic principles which had been initiated in Greece more than two thousand years earlier. 

Along similar lines, and after Whitehead’s time, were the American student antiwar activists in the late 1960s.   With a then expanding university population, many older Americans at that time dismissed university protests as the outcome of lazy, self-indulgent young people obsessed with sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. But as Yale psychology professor Kenneth Kenniston demonstrated even in that period, the student protest population came from the higher levels of academic performance [4,5,6]. These were the students who had properly absorbed the cultural heritage of Western civilization that they had been taught and had come to criticize in light of those principles what their own government was doing in connection with the Viet Nam War.  Again, the higher principles of our inherited culture guided the consciences of those who chose to express their disagreement in civil disobedience. 

This is what Edward Snowden has had the courage to do, and we should be thankful for his personal sacrifice.  He has exposed serious threats to our free society that require immediate reformatory measures.  Let us hope that he, like the earlier Abolitionists and the antiwar activists, will set us on the proper path.

  1. Jeremy Herb and Justin Sink, “Sen. Feinstein calls Snowden's NSA leaks an 'act of treason'”, The Hill, (6 October 2013).
  2. Michael German, “The US Intelligence Community Is Bigger Than Ever, But Is It Worth the Cost?”, “Defense One”, (6 February 2015), Atlantic Media, Washington D. C. 
  3. Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of IdeasThe Free Press, New York, (1933).
  4. Kenneth Keniston, Young Radicals: Notes on Committed Youth, Harcourt (1968).
  5. Kenneth Keniston, The Uncommitted: Alienated Youth in American Society, Laurel 1970).
  6. Kenneth Keniston, Youth and Dissent: The Rise of a New Opposition, Harcourt Brace Javonovich (1971).

Laura Poitras

Films of Laura Poitras:

“Citizenfour” - Laura Poitras (2014)

“What people used to call liberty and freedom, we now call privacy. . . . and we say in the same breath that privacy is dead. . . . . . When we lose privacy, we lose agency.  We lose liberty itself, because we no longer feel free to express what we think.“
                                                                             – Jacob Appelbaum, in Citizenfour
The revelations of US government overreach that were made possible by Edmund Snowden in 2013 represent a critical moment in American history.  The very foundations of American civil society were shown to be willfully and systematically undermined to an unprecedented degree by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the associated “intelligence” community.  Much has been written and testified on the subject, but the documentary film Citizenfour (2014) directed by Laura Poitras stands out as unique.  It offers an authentic historical document in real time – what is shown is history in the making.

It was Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald who went to Hong Kong in June 2013 and secretly met with Snowden, thereby making the arrangements for one of the most explosive news bombshells of all time.  This film presents that encounter as it happens, and the film’s tension and breathtaking speed of events make it something not to be missed.

There are at least three interesting perspectives about the Snowden events that are worthy of our further consideration:
  1. The precise nature of NSA surveillance activities: how they work and how they invade everyone’s privacy.
  2. The extent to which the US government compromised its own legal foundation, the US Constitution, and lied to the public about what it was doing.
  3. The lonely and heroic saga of Edward Snowden, himself, who risked his life to expose the truth.
Most accounts will cover all three perspectives but concentrate on one of them.  For Citizenfour the focus is on the third point – who was this Ed Snowden and what was he about?  And it turns out from watching this portrayal, as one might have suspected all along, that Snowden is a very human and interesting person.

There are other worthy presentations that fill in more of the detail concerning the above three perspectives:
  • For a more detailed coverage of just how surveillance activities, on the part of both the government and private corporations, are threatening our privacy (Perspective 1, above), I recommend Bruce Schneier’s book, Data and Goliath [1].
  • For more on how the US government and private corporations are evading the Constitutional protections (Perspective 2), see the two-part PBS documentary film United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program [2] and United States of Secrets (Part Two): Privacy Lost [3].
  • For more coverage on the fate of Edward Snowden (Perspective 3), in particular the events following those presented in Citizenfour, see the documentary Terminal F [4].
The above accounts are all good and recommended, but the best and most essential one is Citizenfour, and it has received emphatically positive reviews [5,6,7].  This is a film that everyone has to see.

The story of Citizenfour is presented in roughly four sections.  The first one provides some background on US NSA activities and how the film came to be made.  The following two sections, which are the meat of the film, cover Ed Snowden’s fugitive activities in Hong Kong, including his meeting with Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald.   The final section considers some of the larger implications and the ongoing issues of massive government surveillance.

1.  The US Government’s Increasing Surveillance. 
Laura Poitras was already working on a film about government surveillance when she first encountered the then-unknown security contractor, Edward Snowden.  This film project was to be the third part of a trilogy that would include her two earlier and highly-regarded documentaries,  My Country, My Country (2006), which is about Iraq under US occupation,  and The Oath (2010), which concerns two former bin Laden minions who were caught up in US legal machinations. Because these earlier films examined controversial aspects of US foreign policy (and related domestic policy), Poitras found herself subjected to lengthy searches every time she reentered the US, and she discovered that this was because she had been placed on a secret government watch list. To avoid this harassment, she had moved to a less oppressive locale, Berlin.

When in early 2013 Snowden first contacts Poitras with encrypted email messages, identifying himself only by his nom de guerre, "citizenfour”, he already knows that she is likely to be a trusted correspondent.  As he tells her in one of his early messages, he didn’t choose her for his connection, she chose herself by the professional path she had set for herself.

In any case this first part of the film contains material that Poitras had already compiled before she met Snowden.  It provides coverage of a senior NSA operative and ultimately whistle-blower, William Binney, who had developed key surveillance software for the NSA, but had resigned shortly after 911 when he learned that his own software was being used for illegal activities [8].  (For more extensive coverage of William Binney, see United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program). 

We also see NSA director Keith Alexander and US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper blatantly lying to Congress by denying that the federal government was spying on American citizens [9]. 

Then there’s coverage of a longstanding citizen’s lawsuit against the US government in connection with the 2006 revelation that the NSA was tapping AT&T’s lines in San Francisco.  At a court proceeding, US government attorneys claim it is legal to sidestep existing laws and the entire judicial process as long as they secretly inform Congress (some members) about what they are doing.

2.  Meeting with Ed Snowden

Finally, Snowden arranges for Poitras and Glenn Greenwald to secretly meet him at a hotel in Hong Kong on June 3, 2013, so that he can provide them with documentation concerning illegal NSA spying.  The intended publication outlet, The Guardian, also sends Ewen MacAskill to the meeting in order to vet this unknown whistle-blower (which he soon does).   

Now we come to the most interesting part of the film.  We see everything through the eyes of Laura Poitras, who wields her camera inside the hotel room, while Greenwald and McAskill get to know Snowden and learn about what he has to say.  Poitras never lectures her viewers on the subject of privacy; her cinema-verite style keeps her in the background as the witness and allows Snowden and other key testifiers to speak for themselves.  And the pervasive feeling of paranoia induced by the film comes not from the cinematography (well-crafted though it is, including the editing and the sound track) but from the events presented [10].

Snowden emphasizes that he doesn’t want to expose everything he possesses to the public, as Wikileaks did with the information from Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, since some of the information he has could place current government operatives in jeopardy.  Instead, Snowden has chosen to turn over what he has to responsible journalists who can then determine for themselves what is appropriate to publish.  This, I believe, was a wise and carefully considered decision.

In fact Snowden, whose ostensible background as a 29-year-old high school dropout might suggest a callow dreamer, comes across throughout as a remarkably articulate and principled person.  Given the life-threatening risks he was taking and the extreme and unrelenting pressure that surrounded him, he struck me as generally calm, poised, and a thoroughgoing professional.  More than that, his demeanor and actions cast him as a true hero working selflessly for the common good.

Greenwald, too, seems at all times wise, well-spoken, and high-principled. He has almost as much screen time as Snowden and represents to a certain extent a secondary but important protagonist – the liberal-minded conscience that wants to assist the whistle-blower out on his own.  Knowing that the Snowden may be snatched at any moment, Greenwald immediately, begins getting his stories out in The Guardian about the NSA’s transgressions, which causes a sensation across world news media.

In the course of their conversations in the Hong Kong hotel room, a number of the NSA’s disturbing tools and programs are discussed, including Stellar Wind, PRISM, and XKeyscore.  XKeyscore is the front-end to a search system that can collect and search through both the content and the metadata associated with virtually all of everyone’s electronic interactions [11].  Snowden casually remarks that each XKeyscore module can listen in on one billion conversations simultaneously and process 125 GBytes per second.  He says there were 20 such Xkeyscore modules extent in 2011, ten of which were located within the US.  But he warned that given the expanding nature of the program there were probably many more than that even then in 2013.

Snowden also mentions that the TEMPORA program of the GCHQ (the UK’s intelligence agency) is even worse than what NSA has.  It is the world’s first “full-take” surveillance instrument.

3.  Snowden’s Coming Out
With lurid NSA revelations appearing daily in The Guardian, the Washington Post, and other prominent news outlets, an aroused public wants to know where is this coming from.  From his first communications with Greenwald and Poitras, Snowden asserted that he didn’t want to be the focus of attention.  The newsworthy story should be the message and not the messenger.  So on on June 9, Snowden reveals himself.  The press immediately converges on Hong Kong in search of him. 

Now Snowden knows he has to get out, and with the assistance of human rights lawyers Jonathan Mann and Robert Tibbo, he asks for and gets refugee status from the United Nations.  But it is only a matter of a short time before the Hong Kong authorities will probably be forced to acquiesce to an extradition order from the US government. So Snowden says good-bye to Greenwald and Poitras, departs from his hotel, and goes underground. At this point our face-to-face exposure to Snowden has come to an end.

Meanwhile MacAskill and The Guardian staff back in London are shown going over the SNowden files that they have and redacting out those elements that should not be published.  But they do go ahead and report on the GCHQ’s controversial TEMPORA program. 

On June 21, the US government charges Snowden with three felonies, two of which are under the draconian Espionage Act of 1917, which was originally intended for wartime offenses but has been used in recent times to scare whistle-blowers.  This act, which can carry a penalty of death or 30 years of imprisonment for revealing secret information about US government activities, was used to prosecute Jonathon Pollard, who gave some US secrets to Israel, an ally, not an adversary of the US. 

To show how divisive are issues of patriotism such as this in the US, note that even Seymour Hersch, who made his name by revealing US military atrocities in Viet Nam, staunchly applauded the 30-year prison sentence that Pollard received in 1985 [12,13].  Regrettably professed liberals like President Barack Obama and candidate Hilary Clinton have called for full prosecution of Snowden under the Espionage Act [14]. 

On June 23, 2015, Wikileaks organized Snowden’s escape from Hong Kong.

4. The Aftermath
Snowden makes it by plane to Moscow, but he is stranded inside the airport terminal when it is discovered that his US passport has been canceled.  After 40 days in the Moscow airport transit room with no windows and no shower, he was finally granted a one-year visitor’s visa for political asylum in Russia, where he was eventually joined by his longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills.

The remainder of the film shows some reactions to Snowden’s revelations about the NSA.  In September 2013 the EU in Brussels began to investigate NSA surveillance. One of those shown testifying is Ladar Levison, who founded Lavabit, an encrypted Webmail service that provided secure (from surveillance) email service and was used by Edward Snowden.  When the US FBI ordered him (a) to secretly turn over all his data and (b) to keep it secret that he had done so, he felt he had no choice other than to shut down his business.  He remarks to the EU assembly:
“It’s supposed to be difficult to invade someone’s privacy. . . . because of how intrusive it is. . . . because of how disruptive it is.  If we don’t have our right to privacy, how do we have a free and open discussion? What good is the right to free speech if it’s not protected? . . .  in the sense that you can’t have a private discussion about somebody else about something you disagree with. . .  Think about that.”

And William Binney, testifying at to the German Parliament in Berlin, declares, 
“I see this (massive surveillance) as the most major threat to our democracies all around the world.” 
At the close of the film, Greenwald and Snowden are shown discussing new surveillance revelations about a different government operation from a new, unnamed source. For this one, the chain of authorization is shown to go all the way up to “POTUS” [15]. 

This film concerns the fundamental issue of privacy, and it seems that many people are unaware of just how crucial it is to basic human existence. Some people feel they just have to resign themselves to the modern era of “big data” and become accustomed to a world with no privacy. They have given up the fight. Moreover, much of the serious discussion about privacy takes place on the legal plane of laws and rights – how essential, they ask, is the right to privacy and how should it be registered into law?  So many people think the whole thing is largely a techinical legal issue. True, privacy is more or less enshrined as the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution, but some legal scholars have even admitted and argued that there is no singly comprehensible and coherent right to privacy [16]:
“According to one well known argument there is no right to privacy and there is nothing special about privacy, because any interest protected as private can be equally well explained and protected by other interests or rights, most notably rights to property and bodily security (Thomson, 1975)”
But the true and significant nature of privacy lies at a more fundamental plane of human existence than the legal plane.  It gets down to the very nature of the human self.  As academic philosopher Michael P. Lynch has on more than one occasion observed:
“a capacity for privacy is a necessary condition of autonomous personhood.” [17]

“So whether or not the concept of information privacy – like that of a human right – is a creation of the modern age, the source of its value lies at the intersection of autonomy and personhood itself. “ [18]
Privacy is essential to the realization of the human self.  And in fact I am in line with Danish philosopher Dan Zahavi’s view that there are two equally fundamental and complementary notions of the self [19]:
  • One notion is the intrinsic sense of mine-ness that characterizes everyone’s experience.  This mine-ness is not an object that can be scrutinized; it is like the camera perspective of the “invisible witness” that characterizes our experiences of film.
  • The other notion concerns the continual mental construction of our experiences into narratives that we store in our memories. The construction of these narratives are partially under our control, and out of them emerges our narrative-based understanding of ourselves.
It is this second aspect of the self that is under existential threat.  Consider that in the course of our interactions with the world – our operations of agency – a fundamental aspect of this agency is to be able to send a message with respect to a specific context that is not (and can never truly be) fully articulated. We are counting on that context not to be further articulated. Thus we, as agents, are always sending messages with respect to narratives that are largely of our own construction.  And as Zahavi points out, these narratives are a fundamental aspect of the agent.  They represent its very nature. 

Surveillance alters the narrative contexts of our messages. For example some interactions are intended to be private and intimate between a select group of agents. If the context is changed and intimacy is destroyed, the narrative is changed – and thus the agent’s autonomy (our autonomy) is altered.  This alters and diminishes the agent, itself. If we, as agents, are heavily surveilled, and detailed information about everything we do is made available to others, then we find ourselves unwillingly cast into narratives not of our own making or over which we can have no influence.  We become pawns in the chess games of others not of our own choosing.  This represents an existential threat to personhood and signifies the dissolution of a free society. This is what the US intelligence community is aiming to do [20].  (Whether or not you believe the intelligence community is guided by “shock doctrine” tactics, it was not surprising that it immediately attempted to exploit the recent terrorist massacres in Paris by calling for further unrestricted powers of mass surveillance [21]).

This is what alarmed Snowden and should alarm the rest of us, too.

  1. Bruce Schneier, Data and Goliath, (2015). W. W. Norton & Co., NY.
  2. United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program, directed by Michael Kirk (2014), Frontline, (13 May 2014), PBS.
  3. United States of Secrets (Part Two): Privacy Lost, directed by Martin Smith (2014), Frontline, (20 May 2014), PBS.
  4. Terminal F/Chasing Edward Snowden, directed by John Goetz and Poul-Erik Heilbuth (2015).
  5. Peter Bradshaw, “Citizenfour Review – Gripping Snowden Documentary Offers Portrait of Power, Paranoia and One Remarkable Man”, The Guardian, (16 October 2014).
  6. Steve Dollar, “Poitras, Who Earned Snowden’s Trust, Reaches Biggest Audience with ‘Citizenfour’”, The Washington Post, (18 October 2014).
  7. Godfrey Cheshire, “Citizenfour”, Rogerebert.com, (24 October 2014).  Of all reviews I have read Cheshire's reactions correspond most closely with mine.
  8. See Jane Mayer, “The Secret Sharer”, The New Yorker, (23 May 2011), which covers the story of another NSA whistle-blower, Thomas Drake, but which also includes information on Binney.
  9.  At least Clapper lamely tried to qualify his statement by saying that the US government doesn’t do such spying “wittingly”.
  10. George Packer, “The Holder of Secrets”, The New Yorker, (20 October 2014).
  11. Glenn Greenwald, “XKeyscore: NSA tool collects 'nearly everything a user does on the internet'”, The Guardian, (31 July 2013).
  12. Seymour Hersh, "The Traitor", The New Yorker (18 January 1999), archived from the original on 2008-01-21,12.    
  13. On 20 November 2015, upon the completion of his 30-year prison term, Jonathon Pollard was released on parole.  The terms of his parole blocked his desire to relocate to Israel and his access to the Internet.  See: Jessica Glenza and Peter Beaum, “Spy Jonathan Pollard Freed after 30 Years but Still a Thorn in Us-israeli Ties”, The Guardian, (20 November 2015).
  14. John Cassidy, “Hillary Clinton Is Wrong About Edward Snowden”, The New Yorker, (14 October 2015).
  15. “President Of The United States”
  16. Judith DeCew, “Privacy”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (9 August 2013). 
  17. Michael P. Lynch, “Privacy and the Threat to the Self”, The New York Times (22/6/2013). 
  18. Michael P. Lynch, “The Philosophy of Privacy: Why Surveillance Reduces Us to Objects”, The Guardian, (7 May 2015).    
  19. Dan Zahavi, “The Time of the Self”, Grazer Philosophische Studien 84 (1):143-159 (2012).
  20. Antony Loewenstein, “The Ultimate Goal of the NSA is Total Population Control”, The Guardian, (11 July 2014).
  21. The Editorial Board, “Mass Surveillance Isn’t the Answer to Fighting Terrorism”, The New York Times, (17 November 2015).

“Army of Shadows” - Jean-Pierre Melville (1969)

In the latter part of his regrettably shortened career [1,2], Jean-Pierre Melville made his great films noir depicting the darkness of the French criminal underworld, including Le Doulos (1962), Le Deuxième Souffle (1966), Le Samouraï (1967), Le Cercle Rouge (1970), and Un Flic (1972). In the middle of this film-noir sequence, however, was a work that might appear to be an anomaly: his Army of Shadows (L'Armée des Ombres, 1969) about the activities of a French Resistance cell in World War II. Nevertheless, this film, despite its far different setting, is as dark as any of them and fully worthy of the film noir label.

To be sure, Army of Shadow’s historical background combined with its noirish atmosphere probably confused critics and the public at the time of its release in 1969.  This was, after all, in the aftermath of the 1968 French student protests, and the leftward-leaning critical fraternity, led by Cahiers du Cinema magazine, erroneously dismissed the film as “Gaullist film art” [3], as if the film was primarily a celebration of the WWII French Resistance under de Gaulle.  In my view the film is just the opposite – it is one of the more disturbing antiwar films that I have seen.  Nevertheless with its poor critical reception, the film was not widely distributed, and it was not released in the US until 2006, at which time it experienced a critical renaissance and was showered with plaudits [4,5,6].  Today many people consider it to be Melville’s greatest work.

One reason for this is probably that the film certainly is a very personal work. For one thing, the events in the film are drawn from Joseph Kessel’s 1943 novel Army of Shadows, which was a fictionalized account of Kessel’s own experiences in the Resistance.  Then Melville added the perspective from his own personal experiences, since he had been drafted into the French army in 1937 and had served in both the Resistance (operating inside occupied France) and later in the Free French Forces (combating German forces from outside France) [7]. However, even though the action shown in the film is inspired by real events and recollections, Melville did not want  to make a historical treatise.  He was surveying his own memories from a distance of twenty-five years.  As he remarked [7],
“I had no intention of making a film about the Resistance.  So I removed all realism. . . “. 
And his memories of those times were clearly draped in the dark noirish shadows of those desperate circumstances.  In any case Melville had the right idea about  movies [8]:
“A film is first and foremost a dream, and it’s absurd to copy life in an attempt to produce an exact recreation of it.”
In fact films reflect our nightmares as much as dreams.

As I have discussed elsewhere, particularly in my review of Le Doulos, film noir narratives have three key features:
  • Fatalism – Most of the characters have pasts they want to forget (and are unknown to the viewer) and no hopeful futures.
  • Truth – Everyone is lying or hiding something, and the truth is invariably elusive.
  • Loyalty – Given the ubiquity of deceit, loyalty is the most prized virtue, and once loyalty is sworn, disloyalty is the ultimate sin.
Many people may expect these features in a story about gangsters, but perhaps not in war films, especially not in the so-called “good war” of World War II.  But these three elements are continually evident in  Army of Shadows.  Of course, there is no such thing as a good war, and the real experiences of people in war are probably closer to the categories of film noir than people realize.  Certainly the picture Melville presents of the Resistance fighters trying to survive inside a Nazi-controlled France is full of the darkest despair.  It primarily suggests to me that the struggle to survive can drain the humanity from people and turn them into killing machines.  This is why Army of Shadows reminded me of another great antiwar film that was released at about the same time – Miklos Jancsó’s The Red and the White (1967).

The story of Army of Shadows passes through six narrative segments concerning a French Resistance cell operating in 1942 in the south of France (which was for most of that time still nominally controlled by the Vichy government).  In most of these segments, there isn’t much action or heroism.  We merely see the Resistance operatives desperately struggling to escape their German predators, the Gestapo.  Almost from the beginning we know that the noirish sword of doom hangs over all of them and that they are unlikely to survive.

1.  Gerbier Escapes
It is 22 October 1941, and Philippe Gerbier (played by Lino Ventura) is put in confinement at a Vichy-controlled concentration camp. Gerbier, we will later learn, heads a small cell of Resistance men operating out of Marseilles and Lyon. Ventura, as he did earlier in Melville’s Le Deuxième Souffle, presents an interesting persona. His thickset physique is far from glamorous for a film protagonist, but he is clearly vigorous, alert, and reflectively aware of his surroundings at all times. His generally soft-spoken demeanor, accompanied by wry smiles of agreement, belies a capability of violent and brutal eruptions. In general he embodies a kind of an action everyman that gives a visceral touch to Melville’s films.

Gerbier quickly works out an escape plan with a fellow inmate, who is a communist.  But almost immediately, he is reassigned to another, more fearsome, prison in German-occupied territory.  Upon arriving at the prison and just inside the prison’s doorway Gerbier suddenly kills a sentry on duty by snatching the sentry’s own knife and stabbing him in the neck, and then he somehow manages to flee out onto the street.  He escapes his pursuers by quickly ducking into a barbershop and getting a shave from a complicit barber.   Gerbier has escaped, but just like the first sequence in Le Deuxième Souffle, Ventura’s heavy-breathing and unlikely getaway seems so desperate and improbable that it sets a gloomy pall over the rest of the story.  We get the feeling that his days must be numbered.

2.  Execution of a Comrade
Sometime later, Gerbier is now sporting a mustache and back working with the agents under his command: Claude “Le Masque” (Claude Mann),  Félix Lepercq (Paul Crauchet), and Guillaume “Le Bison” (Christian Barbier).  Gerbier has given them all the task of executing a fellow agent, Paul Dounat, for having given up secrets to the Gestapo and thereby betraying Gerbier (there is no further backstory about Dounat). This is an excruciating sequence, because Dounat is a young man barely out of his teens and totally submissive.  It is later revealed that noone can withstand the unbearable Gestapo torture, and prisoners would readily commit suicide but are prevented from doing so.  Dounat seems like an innocent lamb to the slaughter, and the point of killing him seems pointless except to make him pay.  Nevertheless, Gerbier and his men ponder how to kill their victim without making any noise.  They eventually opt for strangulation and mercilessly carry it out.  If the first segment emphasized fatalism, this one shows the dark side of (dis)loyalty.

3. Wider Circles and a Trip to London
Things turn a little brighter in the third segment.  Felix runs into an old friend, Jean-Francois Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel) and recruits him into the Resistance.  Jean-Francois is quickly given an assignment to go to Paris, and there he meets another key agent, Mathilde (Simone Signoret). Before returning to Marseille, he pays a quick visit to his older brother, Luc (Paul Meurisse), who is an esteemed, but unworldly, mathematical philosopher. 

Back in Marseilles Gerbier organizes his team, now including Jean-Francois, to shepherd two passengers onto an allied submarine bound for London.  It turns out that the two passengers are Gerbier himself and Luc Jardie, the academic, who is now revealed (only to us – not to Gerbier’s cell and not even to his brother, Jean-Francois) as actually the big chief of all the on-the-ground Resistance operations. 

In London, Gerbier and Luc Jardie can relax a little, and they briefly meet Charles de Gaulle, who awards Luc Jardie with some kind of medal of honor.  However, Gerbier is exposed to another side of the war not seen in France – air raids.  He is amazed to duck into a dance party among young service personnel who are evidently used to and unmindful of the bombs dropping outside their window. But Gerbier gets news that back in France Felix has been arrested by the Gestapo.  So he rushes back to Lyon.

4.  To Rescue Felix
Mathilde quickly shifts down to Lyon to take Felix’s place as Gerbier’s right-hand operative, and she proves to be invaluable.  When the always ruthless Gerbier suggests that they plan to somehow kill Felix before he yields to torture-induced confessions, Mathilde reveals that she has a clever plan to rescue Felix.  As they make preparations, Jean-Francois, unbeknownst to his fellow agents, gets himself arrested by the Gestapo so that he can facilitate the rescue from the inside. 

Mathilde’splan involves disguising herself and two aids as German medics, and they con their way inside the Gestapo facility.  But it is too late. Mathilde learns that Felix is already dying from the torture, and she is barely able to abort their mission and escape from the prison. Jean-Francois is left inside with only his cyanide pill to save him from his own torture.

5.  To Rescue Gerbier
Now it is Gerbier’s turn to get arrested by the Gestapo.  He is about to be executed by a sadistically conceived firing squad, when Mathilde comes up with another ingenious plan and stages a miraculous rescue – this time successfully. 

6.  Another Payoff
This final segment is the grimmest of them all and serves as a fit culmination of the nihilistic world depicted in this film.  It subscribes to the inhuman logic of what war is: a massive-scale death machine.  You need to see this sequence yourself, without foreknowledge, in order to feel the existential desolation that is generated.

Melville set out to make a faithful film of Kessel’s novel, and he does include most of the events in the novel.  But the film’s overall tone faithfully adheres to his own grim take on film noir.  Fatalism is the key.  At one point Gerbier in voiceover ruminates on his own interior existential view of hope and the denial of death,
“It’s impossible not to be afraid of dying.  But I’m too stubborn, too much of an animal to believe it. If I don’t believe it to the last moment, to the very last split second, I'll never die. What a revelation.  The chief would love it.”
But Gerbier’s acceptance of the war ethic results in his never hesitating to issue death condemnations for other  – for whomever it suits his schemes   When he is on the exterior, death for others is readily prescribed.

And truth is always elusive. Jean-Francois never does know that his own brother is the big chief of the organization he serves. Moreover, Jean-Francois’s heroic self-sacrifice is never known to others, and he dies a presumed traitor. Mathilde’s Resistance life is unknown even to her husband and teenage daughter. What went on in Mathilde’s mind at the end is also unknowable.

Warmongers always invoke patriotism and try to drum into youthful minds notions of loyalty – not to love, compassion, and human values – but to the demands of reductionist and doctrinaire militancy.  Army of Shadows shows that side of it.

  1. Jean-Pierre Melville died of a heart attack in 1973 at the age of fifty-five.
  2. For more on Melville's career, see: Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Army of Shadows/L’Armée des Ombres”, Buffalo Film Seminars, XV:6, The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University.
  3. J. Hoberman, “Fog of War”, The Village Voice, (18 April 2006).
  4. Amy Taubin, “Out of the Shadows”, The Criterion Collection, (11 January 2011).
  5. Robert O. Paxton, “Melville’s French Resistance”, The Criterion Collection, (11 January 2011).
  6. Roger Ebert, “Army of Shadows”, RogerEbert.com, (21 May 2006).
  7. Rui Nogueira, “Melville on Melville: Army of Shadows”, Army of Shadows, The Criterion Collection, pp. 30-40.
  8. World Film Directors, Vol. II., John Wakeman (ed.), Wilson, co., NY 1988, quoted in “Conversations About Great Films: Army of Shadows/L’Armée des Ombres”, Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), Buffalo Film Seminars, XV:6, The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (2 October 2007).