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Hollywood’s Love Affair with Surveillance

Captain America


One of the valences of the NSA leaks has been opinionators wringing their hands over the lack of anger and shock. Where’s the anger? The protests? Why are the people so complacent in the face of these revelations? Well, one reason might be that they’re not all that revelatory.

Only liberals require repeated instances of one-hundred-percent verified documentary evidence to begin to entertain the idea that there might be something bad about the way the state is treating its subjects—at least when a Democrat is in the White House. Muslims, communities of color, immigrants, political activists, the incarcerated or formerly incarcerated, and anyone else who lives under police surveillance (not to mention the more than 1 million people who actually work in the intelligence industry and their families) know the surveillance-state first hand.

But knowledge of surveillance techniques—hacking into email accounts, eavesdropping on phone calls, coordinating security cameras, or tracking people by GPS—has already been spread far and wide through movies and television, long before Edward Snowden’s revelations. The Bourne films, the new Iron Man movies, The Hunger Games, and dozens more besides have featured state actors capable of knowing anything and everything at any time.

While the fantasy of a panoptical state in fiction goes back to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and portrayals of police snooping, wiretapping and trailing are as old as the cop-film genre, the image of total surveillance as something other than a dystopian nightmare has become an increasingly frequent cinematic and televisual motif in the last fifteen years.

Indeed, while some journalists are busy making their careers one NSA power-point slide at a time, cinema has moved well beyond the fact that everything might be heard and watched by state spooks into exploring the ramifications and possibilities presented by that fait accompli. Three recent examples, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Robocop, and Her present three different ways of accommodating us to total surveillance, which viewed together can helpfully describe the ideological contours of the surveillance state.

As with all Marvel Studios films, part of the way Captain America: The Winter Soldier shows the audience that they’re watching hundreds of millions of dollars being spent is to throw about thirty plots at them. But the main “Captain America versus the super-villains” plot could be summarized, only slightly sardonically, as, “What if Edward Snowden were a genetically-modified-super-soldier, and the NSA were a conspiracy hatched by a Nazi scientist who downloaded his consciousness onto a computer?” The answer to that intriguing what-if is that the massive surveillance would be used in the production of genocidal mega-drones who would pre-emptively eliminate millions of future dissidents in order to instantiate a fascist state. When Captain America reveals the internal fascist conspiracy to employees of SHIELD (Marvel’s superhero-training military-industrial complex), he instructs them to rise up against their bosses.

Of course, the film has to walk back this radical analysis—namely, that mass-surveillance can only be used towards forms of totalitarian state control, up to and including genocide. In one of the film’s approximately nineteen different endings (love you Marvel!) Black Widow explicitly states that, while SHIELD surveillance may produce certain vulnerabilities—like, say, funding and enabling a massive conspiracy of ultra-powerful neo-Nazis—it also produces the only available counter-power to such a conspiracy.

This pretty well sums up the ethical-political stasis of American liberals, too: well, sure, the surveillance system’s fucked, but it’s already here, so let’s hope some amount of transparency will make it regulate itself?

If Captain America takes the potential structural abuses of state power as its subject, Robocop and Her pretend to talk about robots and artificial intelligence (AI) while actually asking that all-important ideological question: what does it take to make ostensibly free subjects accept total surveillance?


Robocop. / Photo by GabboT

The Robocop reboot answers that question sloppily: it takes results. The remake mimics a critique of the police and the security apparatus, like that of its visionary predecessor, but is ultimately a commercial for state omniscience. The film’s meta-conflict is whether Congress, in 2028, will allow the use of surveillance robots (which we see them already using globally) to police the United States. Omnicorp, the makers of the drones, builds and mobilizes Robocop to sway public opinion. Robocop single handedly and immediately drops the crime rate in Detroit by 90 percent. And if the American people love Robocop, well, Congress will have to act!

The conflict driving the film’s plot is a totally false dilemma, because the use of unmanned drones by the state is already approved on U.S. soil now, in 2014, and also because public opinion hasn’t mattered to whatever gets through Congress in maybe four decades. Furthermore, even if we’re meant to recognize robot policing would be “bad,” most of the film’s meager pleasures come from action sequences we spend inside Robocop’s robotic-visor, which is like Google Glass on cop-steroids.

With this system, Robocop has the ability to locate anyone (and ascertain their emotional and medical status) anywhere in the city through the instantaneous deployment of cameras, retinal scans and biometric readings. The upshot of the film is that corrupt corporations might abuse surveillance, but that a “good cop” would use total omniscience to end crime.

Her has, by its critical and popular acclaim, found a much more convincing answer to the question of what it takes for us to submit to total surveillance: patriarchy. The fundamental question of Her actually has nothing to do with AI and everything to do with how much misogyny is required to convincingly tell a story about a man falling in love with his personal surveillance device—er, operating system. (Spoiler alert: a lot.)

From his first sexual encounter in the film, in which a stranger on a phone-sex hotline tells him to describe choking her with a dead cat, then cries into the phone after orgasm, the women Theodore encounters are all beings of inchoate and terrifying desire. It is only after a blind date with a gorgeous woman played by Olivia Wilde—who thrusts her hands down Theodore’s pants before asking, terrified, “You’re not just gonna sleep with me and not call me like all the other guys?”—that Theodore falls into the digital arms of Samantha.

Even the film’s most interesting conceit, in which a woman shows up to be a body-surrogate stand-in for Samantha, allowing Samantha and Theodore to (sort of) have sex, ends the moment their interaction is marred by a tiny glimmer of insecurity or instability. The surrogate, again a beautiful woman who has put herself forward sexually, flees crying and screaming from the scene at the first sign of trouble, hiding in a closet and taking the blame for a fight between Samantha and Theodore. “I’m sorry my lip quivered,” she says. “The way you guys love each other without any judgment, I wanted to be part of that.”

But what does Samantha do, throughout the film, to make Theodore love her? She reads all of his emails. She watches him constantly: while he’s sleeping, while he’s working. She tells him whom to date, and what to do on those dates. She becomes his eyes. In a “romantic” scene at a carnival, he puts the video device through which she sees in his pocket and lets her lead him around with his eyes closed. Her shows that you just have to really hate (real-life) women in order to love the NSA.

Here, then, we see three strategies for accommodating people to surveillance society. One, the most obvious and prevalant, the lie already getting a bit threadbare, is Robocop’s insistence that surveillance will actually stop crime and terrorism. If that doesn’t work, you can always combine patriarchy with total alienation from our desire and our bodies, as in Her. And if none of that convinces you, there’s always the liberal shrug embodied in Captain America: the military-industrial complex may constitute an existential threat, but it’s so powerful that it’s also the only thing capable of keeping us safe from itself.

Hollywood movies are not innocently produced cultural objects, are not art-for-art’s sake, or even art-for-money’s sake. Their continued production and distribution is reliant on society’s richest, who, in funding the films, have not only a vested interest in their worldview being propagated, but also an unconscious bias towards that worldview—which is reflected in the people they hire, the scripts they approve or reject, and so on.

For instance, whenever U.S. military vehicles, weapons, or personnel show up in a film, they appear there for free, thanks to the military, who will donate time and resources if they approve of the script and the production. The relationship between the state, Hollywood and foreign policy has been well documented. Hollywood also just loves their tech toys, always has.

For these reasons, and more, a love of surveillance is deeply entwined into our cultural products. While some journalists are working toward NSA transparency, cinema already has them well-flanked, shoring up the arguments that would make that potential transparency totally ineffective in the face of a public already enamored with surveillance’s possibilities.

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