The preventability of terrorist attacks is the tantalizing heart of A Good American, which premiered at Copenhagen’s documentary showcase CPH:DOX only days before the Paris atrocities renewed speculations about governmental intelligence failures. Friedrich Moser’s unquestioning, adoring tribute to National Security Agency whistleblower William Binney — who claims that 9/11 could and should have been averted — therefore has topicality very much on its side, guaranteeing extensive festival play over the coming months and boosting chances for this English-language Austrian production’s theatrical distribution. Considerable thematic overlap with Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning Citizenfour — in which Binney appeared — also counts in Moser’s favor, but the strident monotony of his thriller-like approach ends up blunting the force of his accusations.
This is yet another example of that documentary school in which a radical innovator is profiled in a manner that’s incongruously and unimaginatively conventional. Binney’s bona fides as an individual capable of thinking well outside of any box are established early on, alongside his patriotism, his willingness to question authority where appropriate (forged during Vietnam-era military service), his flair — even genius — for analyzing data and metadata, the “data about data” whose study he helped pioneer and refine.
A longtime key staffer at the NSA — where he rose to become Technical Director — Binney found himself increasingly at odds with the organization, especially during the George W. Bush era when the privacy of citizens was, he plausibly contends, sacrificed on the altar of omnisurveillance. Opposed to the mass gathering of data on both ideological and practical grounds, Binney instead developed a much more focused approach — the “ThinThread” program. Discontinued by his superiors in mid-August of 2001, ThinThread could, Binney and his former colleagues assert, have picked up on cyberspace “chatter” and averted the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks which followed three weeks later: “9/11 would have been avoided; there’s no way we wouldn’t have caught that.”
Afforded considerable screen-time to deliver his case — talking-head style, with his interlocutor (presumably Moser) discreetly rendered silent and invisible — Binney makes for an engaging, intelligent, articulate protagonist. In brief flashback reconstructions he’s played as a young man by actor Christopher Beer, whose more-than-passing resemblance to Snowden is presumably no coincidence. Indeed, Snowden’s enthusiasm for The Programme, an eight-minute “op-doc” about Binney which Poitras made for the New York Times‘ website in 2012, was reportedly a crucial factor in his trusting her with telling his own story.
It’s very easy to imagine Binney being incarnated by Elias Koteas in some upcoming big-budget Hollywood fictionalization of his tale, the specter of such a production ever-present thanks in no small part to the insistent, doomily urgent stylings of Guy Farley and Christopher Slaski’s strings-heavy score. In his second feature-length effort after 2012’s “docu-thriller” The Brussels Business, Moser plainly seeks to immerse the audience in an atmosphere redolent of both Alan J. Pakula’s 1970s conspiracy-theory classics plus the higher-octane world of Jason Bourne and Ethan Hunt. ThinThread even sounds like some cousin of the nefarious Treadstone initiative from the Bourne franchise.
It’s persuasive, but only to a certain degree — the assertions of Binney and his ex-NSA cohorts are never questioned or independently examined, never counterpointed with opposing perspectives, never given credibility by the contributions of disinterested experts, and will therefore doubtless be dismissed by some as the grumblings of disgruntled ex-employees. The closing credits begin by challenging the viewer with the question “Want to take action? www.agoodamerican.org,” confirming that the film is primarily intended as a work of campaigning journalism, a partisan polemic designed to raise awareness and rouse ire. “No single terror attack has been prevented” by liberties-infringing mass surveillance, Moser goes on to baldly and boldly claim — but how can he possibly be sure?
None of Binney’s superiors responded to interview requests, needless to say, but a wider range of voices would surely have added crucial nuance and depth to a film which blithely levels some enormously grave accusations: “They wanted to keep the U.S.’s population and the free world’s population vulnerable.” Who? Why? Even at 100 minutes, A Good American — a title that’s notably without any kind of ambiguity — somehow never finds time to ask such questions, let alone answer them. Something of a missed opportunity, then —ironically enough.
Production company: blue + green communication
Director / Screenwriter / Producer / Cinematographer: Friedrich Moser
Executive producer: Peter Janacek
Editor: Kirk von Heflin
Composers: Guy Farley, Christopher Slaski
Sales: Austrian Film Commission, Vienna
No Rating, 100 minutes