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Citizenfour: Big Brother Breakdown


There’s a reason the stunning revelations in Citizenfour seem to come straight out of the movies. Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary has opened a lot of eyes to just how invasive the U.S. government’s covert surveillance program has grown in the 21st century. But even before the acclaimed filmmaker sat down in a secret Hong Kong hotel room to interview controversial whistleblower-in-hiding Edward Snowden about America spying on its own citizens, much of cinema’s past had predicted that Big Brother would someday watch over us – be it through phone conversations, email, or even satellite imagery.

Here’s a brief look at a few of Hollywood’s spookiest surveillance stories, guaranteed to bring out your most paranoid fears.

1984 (1984)

Stars: John Hurt, Richard Burton

Surveillance Tricks: Two-way televisions

The Plot: The big brother of all Big Brother movies, this adaptation of George Orwell’s now 66-year-old dystopian novel assumes that modern state surveillance will smash even the smallest sign of rebellion. In this society, every home is fitted with a “telescreen” in which the “Thought Police” see all – definitely a problem when Hurt’s character has a forbidden affair with a fellow worker.

Classified Information: Orwell’s story was so potent, the term “Orwellian” is now considered shorthand for anything repressive or autocratic.

Enemy of the State (1998)

Stars: Will Smith, Gene Hackman

Surveillance Tricks: Computers, satellites, GPS tracking

The Plot: Edward Snowden may feel a bit like Will Smith these days. In this thriller, Smith plays a labour lawyer who inadvertently gets his hands on a video incriminating government security officials in the murder of a freedom-fighting congressman. Soon, Smith’s character inexplicably finds his bank accounts frozen and personal belongings bugged as he attempts to outwit dubious agents and their pervasive surveillance gimmickry. His only trustworthy ally turns out to be a reluctant and rebellious surveillance expert, played by Gene Hackman. Though this high-concept action-thriller may have seemed far-fetched in the ’90s, there’s little dispute the film helped to inform public opinion that Big Brother is always watching!

Classified Information: Keen eyes will spot Jack Black playing an evil National Security Agency agent.

The Lives of Others (2006)

Stars: Ulrich Mühe, Martina Gedeck

Surveillance Tricks: Bugs, closed-circuit television, mail interception

The Plot: An Oscar-winner as best foreign-language film, this drama looks at the role of surveillance in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Following the story of conflicted secret agent Gerd Wiesler (played by well-respected German actor Ulrich Mühe) as he spies on a successful playwright and his actress lover, filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Tourist) explored the Stasi – East Germany’s Cold War secret police – and their Big Brother-like ploys against ordinary citizens deemed “enemies of socialism.” Von Donnersmarck based the film on real Stasi tactics – of which there were many. An estimated 100,000 agents were employed by the Ministry for State Security, one of the most coercive intelligence agencies in history.

Classified Information: Check your Stasi files! During his research, Mühe discovered he had been under secret surveillance by fellow actors during his early days in the East Berlin theatre.

Eagle Eye (2008)

Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monaghan

Surveillance Tricks: Drones, satellite imagery, aerial cameras

The Plot: Originally conceived by Steven Spielberg, Eagle Eye follows Shia LaBeouf playing an innocent college dropout who receives a strange call on his cellphone. He is thrust into an international conspiracy, manipulated by a faceless enemy that mistakenly targets him as a terrorist. Eagle Eye may be a mile-a-minute thriller, but under its action-packed surface simmers suspicions about the more disturbing side of how something as innocuous as an iPhone can be traceable. “It’s a realistic thriller,” LaBeouf said in 2008. “The fact that your conversations can be listened to and recorded in so many facets, it’s scary.”

Classified Information: Look behind you. “People think that actors get followed around by paparazzi and that’s terrifying,” LaBeouf said. “What they don’t realize is that everyone is being followed. … That’s not a sci-fi idea, that’s the way the world is."

Brazil (1985)

Stars: Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro

Surveillance Tricks: Secret ducts
The Plot: Perhaps one of the most satirical takes on surveillance societies came via ex-Monty Python member Terry Gilliam. After all, his cult hit Brazil proposed a dystopian future where people were secretly monitored by a government agency that demands subservience and productivity. Veteran character actor Jonathan Pryce (Pirates of the Caribbean, G.I. Joe) found fame playing the lowly, fantasizing bureaucrat who is tracked down essentially because of an overlooked administrative spelling error. In this totalitarian society, however, such an innocuous blunder finds Pryce’s character incarcerated and tortured by the secret police.

Classified Information: Mirroring the oppression of a totalitarian state, Universal Studios tried to re-cut the ending of Brazil without Gilliam’s consent, insisting it needed a happier ending; that is, until the director went public with an open letter in the trade magazine Variety.

Steve Gow is a Toronto-based entertainment freelance writer and editor of