Have Hollywood movies been softening us up for NSA-style surveillance?
That’s the provocative claim of a recent essay on The Guardian’s film blog by John Patterson. Citing poll data suggesting that a "slim but clear majority of Americans" aren’t worried about the latest revelations of the extent of the NSA’s Prism monitoring program covering Internet usage, email, phone calls and so forth, Patterson argued that Hollywood movies have been accustoming us to the idea of government surveillance for decades.
As an aside, it’s not clear that Patterson is right about American attitudes. A Pew/Washington Post poll did suggest that most Americans accept the basic idea of Prism. But the wording of that poll has been criticized — and other recent polls by Gallup, CNN and Time, among others, suggest that Americans feel the government has gone too far in pursuing security concerns at the expense of privacy and personal liberty.
Has Hollywood really been running interference for government surveillance? From the earliest sci-fi to the paranoia cinema of the 1970s to slick action thrillers like Enemy of the State (1998) and The Dark Knight (2008), Hollywood has generally portrayed high-tech surveillance as at least dangerous, if not oppressive. Police-state concerns of writers such as George Orwell and Philip K. Dick have informed countless films, from direct adaptations to many more films influenced by their ideas.
Orwell’s dystopian cautionary tale Nineteen Eighty-Four has been adapted for the big screen at least twice (in 1956 and 1984), with the Thought Police using telescreens to spy on citizens’ private lives. Other films, such as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), have depicted similarly Orwellian high-tech dystopias with oppressive surveillance states.
A short story by Dick was the inspiration for one of the most acclaimed action movies of the previous decade, Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002). The film is set in a near-future world in which privacy is obliterated and both the police state and the corporate world are invasive presences in peoples’ lives. Dynamic billboards target passing pedestrians by name ("John Anderton, you could use a Guinness right now!"), and police searching for a suspect flood an entire apartment building with terrifying spider-bots that invade everyone’s homes, checking every inhabitant with retinal scanners.
The whole premise of the film, moreover, is built around computerized analysis of the visions of three "Pre-Cogs" who see into people’s homes and hearts, allowing "Pre-Crime" enforcers to arrest culprits-to-be for crimes they haven’t committed yet. The film dramatizes how the seemingly flawless system can be manipulated, and the somewhat contrived happy ending calls for the abolition of the program.
Already in the silent era, films from Fritz Lang’s sci-fi dystopia Metropolis (1927) to Charlie Chaplin’s satirical Modern Times (1936) — both Vatican film list honorees — depicted surveillance technology as an oppressive tool in the hands of a powerful technocracy.
In Modern Times, the technocracy is only the management of a large manufacturing corporation; still, there’s something jarringly Big Brother-ish about the boss’ face appearing on a giant two-way telescreen in the lavatory ordering Chaplin back to work. Such futuristic telescreens also appear in Metropolis, where corporate and civil authority is merged in a single figure whose control over the citizens’ lives is absolute.
Before the 1990s, high-tech surveillance in the movies typically involved analog technology, such as the ubiquitous bugging devices in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), a classic of paranoia cinema. The film stars Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert whose obsessive efforts to maintain his own privacy are ultimately no defense against the insidious power of surveillance technology — or even the possibility of its presence.
Hackman plays a similarly obsessive, reclusive surveillance expert in the Will Smith action movie Enemy of the State, which gives the paranoia of The Conversation a digital upgrade. The NSA itself plays a role in this overtly political film, with Smith as a lawyer caught up in a government plot involving the assassination of a congressman opposed to excesses of surveillance culture. Smith discovers that his cellphone and pager are being used to track him, and NSA analysts track his movements (not always realistically or plausibly) using satellite imagery, computerized models of buildings and other tools.
It’s true, as Patterson points out, that the government bad guys in Enemy of the State are not the NSA itself, but a few rogue agents within the NSA. That’s probably partly a function of the demands of popcorn escapism; Americans want a happy ending, and while a fictional program such as "Pre-Crime" can easily be shut down at the end of the movie, the NSA isn’t going anywhere.
It’s also true that other movies depict the potential of high-tech surveillance for good, or at least for thwarting evil. The Dark Knight is a shrewd depiction of our conflicted national conscience on this subject. To stop the Joker, Batman hacks into every cellphone in Gotham City and turns them into a citywide sonar system with a video feed in his cowl. (He also uses torture, unsuccessfully.)
As a check against the temptation to misuse this invasive technology, he places sole control of it in the hands of his aghast ally Lucius Fox, who is morally inured by being played by Morgan Freeman. (When the NSA surveillance story broke, Reason’s senior editor, Peter Suderman, jokingly tweeted that control of Prism should be given to Morgan Freeman.) Fox agrees to do so — but only for the present emergency, after which he will resign. (This clear line is easier to draw with an enemy like the Joker than with "terror.")
Ultimately, though, American attitudes toward technology have probably been less developed by Hollywood than by technology itself. In Enemy of the State, the GPS locators in Smith’s cellphone and pager were planted by the NSA. Today, we buy smartphones with GPS locators as a standard feature, even though we know our movements are being tracked wherever we go.
We are getting more complacent with the high-tech erosion of our privacy, simply because non-wired life is increasingly unimaginable to most of us, and the loss of privacy seems unavoidable. Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and countless other entities are busily building profiles on all of us. The data is out there, and the government is powerful enough to get what it wants. A few people, like Gene Hackman in Enemy of the State, may be willing to do whatever it takes to stay off the grid, but most of us want our smartphones.
And, in the end, this is partly why we don’t really believe that it will ever come to the kind of world Orwell predicted. Big Brother is here, but we’re too cynical, sensual, sentimental and individualistic for Orwellian hyperpatriotism, collectivism and asceticism.
The cheerful banality of Brave New World prevails over the nightmare vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four. We don’t want to be free; we want to be entertained. Our computers may be spying on us, but look at all the movies we can watch on them.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.