Unusually, the Academy Awards featured two movies in 2014 centered on spying—the film The Imitation Game about Alan Turing and the breaking of the Nazi Enigma cipher machine, and the documentary Citizenfour about Edward Snowden and his disclosures about the secret activities of U.S. and British intelligence agencies. Unlike silver screen depictions of fictional worlds of espionage, neither film involves martinis, shaken or stirred. Instead, The Imitation Game and Citizenfour put human faces on historic moments involving the shadow worlds of intelligence and counter-intelligence.
Citizenfour won the Oscar for best documentary, a development that will encourage more people to watch it. Whether you love or loathe Snowden, Citizenfour is worth seeing. It provides a perspective that the leaked documents and the acrimonious debates they provoked do not. It lets you watch Ed Snowden, up close and personal, as he proceeds to transform his world irrevocably and change our world in ways we cannot avoid confronting.
Make no mistake, Citizenfour is advocacy, a paean to someone its director, Laura Poitras, believes is a hero for disclosing what she, Snowden, and others believe are illegal abuses of political power. Even for those less enamored with Snowden, the intimacy of the documentary connects history-making events with this very real man. The big issues Snowden’s actions raised about power, technology, individual rights, the rule of law, and democracy can obscure that it all began with one person deciding on a course of fateful action of terrifying uncertainty.
When I watched Citizenfour, the film’s humanizing of the “Snowden affair” connected in my mind with The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. Turing played a central role in British intelligence’s deciphering of communications Nazi Germany transmitted through codes generated by its Enigma machine. This triumph has long been part of the lore of the allied victory in World War II, with the work accomplished through the electro-mechanical deciphering “bombe” at Bletchley Park obtaining mythic status. Never have so many owed so much to so few—a sentiment equally applicable to the men and women who broke Enigma.
The Imitation Game provides a human face to this feat of counter-intelligence in its focus on Turing, his brilliance, his contribution to the war effort, and his suffering as a gay man living at a time homosexuality was criminalized. The secrets Turing kept went beyond the ones found in the information produced from deciphered German communications.
But the connections between Turing and Snowden go beyond these humanizing depictions of history-changing people. Turing was a pioneer in computer science who helped build the foundations of the intensively computerized societies in which we live. Snowden’s disclosures of official secrets reflect his decision to expose the expansive power inter-networked computers have given governments vis-à-vis individuals around the world.
In The Imitation Game, the need to keep the secrets from deciphered Enigma signals is presented as necessary, legitimate, and heroic, even at the gut-wrenching cost of knowingly sacrificing soldiers, sailors, and civilians in order to preserve the secret that Enigma was broken. Here is secrecy at the honorable service of the survival of British democracy and the allied cause against the Nazi menace. The shocking treatment of Turing later in his life not only reveals persecution by prejudice but also sullies what Turing did for Western civilization during World War II in creating and keeping secrets.
In Citizenfour, the secrets gathered by the keepers of the cyber progeny of the Bletchley Park bombe have become the menace to individual rights, the rule of law, and democracy. Here secrecy amounts to the abuse of power and the loss of privacy on a global scale. Snowden leaks secrets for reasons that, across the decades, echo why Turing and his compatriots preserved them, reasons that subsume the individual in a collective sacrifice for a better tomorrow. As the camera pans out from Snowden in his Moscow apartment, the film dares to ask what we will do with what Snowden has done for today's globally interconnected world.
Hollywood films and documentaries, however critically acclaimed, should not be guiding stars for how we perceive espionage and counter-intelligence. However, The Imitation Game and Citizenfour both remind us that state secrets constitute awesome power wielded by persons caught between the unforgiving exigencies of national security and the unforgivable complicity of allowing these exigencies to overwhelm the reasons why security matters to a free people.
David P. Fidler is editor of the forthcoming The Snowden Reader. He is the James Louis Calamaras Professor of Law at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law and is a Senior Fellow at the IU Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research. He currently is a Visiting Fellow for Cybersecurity at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.
Learn more about the book in this Foreword interview with David P. Fidler.