Why can’t Hollywood seem to make sense of surveillance?

Oliver Stone’s Snowden will look to realistically show the actions of the NSA and other government agencies.


Fred Wagner

The upcoming biography of Edward Snowden will be one of the first feature films to address governmental surveillance since the torrent of leaks that began in 2013. Director Oliver Stone has expressed sympathy for the man behind them (what else would you expect from the guy who made W. and Wall Street?), but aside from the heated politics at play there’s also a serious technical issue to address here. The modern methods of surveillance that have now been exposed to the world are inherently difficult to portray on film, posing a challenge to filmmakers looking to root their work in fact.

Professor of cinema at USC, Steve Anderson, makes the claim in his documentary Screening Surveillance that Hollywood has always struggled to portray computer software but in particular, its recent depiction of surveillance hasn’t caught up with today’s reality. Instead of showing the techniques really used by the NSA these days, movies have tended to fall back on the familiar trope of a totalitarian government bugging citizens’ phones. In the modern world, operatives collect and analyse all kinds of data – scooped up in enormous nets from the depths of the internet – but they aren’t listening in to our actual conversations, except in very rare instances.

Back in 1998, Will Smith vehicle Enemy of the State could be forgiven for showing every inch of a fugitive’s flat bugged by the feds, but after Snowden’s revelations a film like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, from 2014, shouldn’t be making the same mistake. On the small screen The Good Wife showed blokes from the NSA tapping Alesha Florick’s phone calls. Cumulatively, these misleading portrayals have an impact. We might know all the ins and outs of government surveillance programmes (although polls show that most people don’t) but in our mind’s eye we still can’t help seeing beige bureaucrats peeping on hapless civilians.

Hollywood has depicted other big issues of the day with comparative clarity. Take the 2008 financial crisis: while The Wolf of Street focused on the hedonism that went hand-in-hand with those diabolically risky investments, The Big Short shed light on dodgy derivatives by likening them to unwanted ingredients at a restaurant, lumped together in a stew in order to be passed off as a fresh dish.

So why is Hollywood seemingly unable to realistically portray surveillance technologies? Unlike the financial crash, data collection is pretty abstract. Trillions of dollars getting flushed down the toilet (or more accurately, turning out never to have existed) is easier to get your head around than the complex software used to keep tabs on our communications. Surely though, these programmes can’t be impossible to represent?

The comedian and political commentator John Oliver came up with one method in a skit for his TV show. The angle? The government can see your ‘dick-picks!’. For an interview with Snowden his team did a pop quiz asking people whether they thought the government could access this sort of material (most of them thought it was wildly unrealistic, however, Snowden clarified that the government can actually access your dick picks). While it came in the guise of a schoolboy joke, Oliver’s point was that there is a need to put the issue in terms most of us are not only able to understand but also likely to remember.

Perhaps Hollywood’s struggle to accurately depict surveillance comes down to plain old inertia. Just as the ‘War on Terror’ seemed to replace the Cold War as the raison d’etre for American military power, so phone tapping was cut and pasted from movies about the Soviet Union to those concerning terrorism. In some ways this is unsurprising: the idea of a corrupt government spying on its citizens makes great drama. In The Lives of Others, about East Germany’s network of state spying, an officer gradually comes to empathise with the playwright he is supposed to be listening in on, unable to stop himself feeling a connection to this person he has come to know so intimately. In Enemy of the State, Jack Black’s character has a similar moral awakening while on the job. This kind of personal contact doesn’t exist in the abstract realm of computer software, where data is mined but intimate secrets aren’t heard.

Films do make a difference to the way we conceptualise issues and sometimes they can affect our behaviour quite dramatically. For a recent example, look at how The Big Short supposedly brought down the value of Morgan Stanley’s sub-prime bonds. For a filmmaker like Oliver Stone, who routinely sends out clear political messages, showing the reality of mass surveillance should surely be a priority.

Published 28 Apr 2016

Tags: Edward Snowden NSA Oliver Stone Surveillance

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