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Film Review: ‘A Good American’

Variety logo Variety 2/2/2017 Nick Schager
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The issue of national security – and the various means by which the government achieves it – has been at the forefront of President Donald Trump’s early days in the Oval Office, replete with an impending executive order on cyber-security safeguards. Thus, “A Good American” arrives at a fortuitously timed moment, given that it profiles a former NSA official who created a system that supposedly would have prevented the 9/11 attacks, were it not for his superiors’ actions. While compelling in its explanation of intelligence-gathering procedures, Austrian director Friedrich Moser’s documentary ultimately resorts to making charges it can’t convincingly corroborate. Still, as a history lesson about the birth of our modern surveillance apparatus, it’s an intriguing work that should find a welcome home on VOD.

The title, “A Good American,” exposes Moser’s bias, in that he’s completely convinced of the claims made (and noble intentions of) his subject, Bill Binney, a numbers genius whose analytic government work in the ’60s and ’70s led him to the NSA. There, he was tasked with looking at mounds of metadata about communications details and relationships, and using them to recognize webs of patterns.

A soft-spoken wheelchair-bound man, Binney cogently explains his love of mathematics as “an attempt to structure common sense and consistencies in the universe. … Everything is structured, and it’s just a matter of finding that structure.” He clearly lays out his military background and motivations in building ThinThread, a forward-thinking, far-reaching program that could instantly monitor, and assess connections between, the information of every person on Earth. It was, in a real sense, Big Brother incarnate.

If you’ve never heard of ThinThread, that’s because then-NSA director William Hayden scrapped it in late 2000. Binney, as well as colleagues Kirk Wiebe, Ed Loomis, Tom Drake, and Diane Roark, contend that it was shelved in favor of a competing program, Trailblazer, because Hayden and NSA bigwig Sam Visner had ties to the firm that was developing the latter program, and saw it as more personally profitable (despite its ostensible analog-grade inferiority). Moser takes Binney at his word, and the competing consideration of ThinThread – that it was dangerous because it collected data on citizens to a privacy-invading extent – is not fully addressed here. The lack of such an examination leaves the doc feeling like it’s operating with blinders on.

This also diminishes the claim by Binney and others who maintain (thanks to their own subsequent analysis) that ThinThread could have foreseen the events of 9/11 by combing through the data the NSA possessed in early 2001. That’s an explosive bombshell if true. “A Good American,” however, never ventures outside its small sphere of talking heads (Binney and friends) to verify it. That alone makes their assertion seem somewhat dubious. And Moser’s many aesthetic devices, from ominous music and CGI graphics to dramatic reenactments and archival news footage – which strive to push buttons with a manipulative insistence – only seed the ground for further skepticism.

If the doc’s ultimate argument is less than wholly persuasive, “A Good American” nonetheless paints a fascinating picture of Binney’s mind, and the way in which he first envisioned ThinThread as a giant neural network-like globe filled with graphically linked nodes. Even when Moser’s computer-generated visualizations of Binney’s theory prove a bit heavy-handed, the documentary comes across as a cautionary tale of a man who sought to protect the world with an ingenious creation that could be used for ill as well as good. It’s a lot like seeing a film about the Manhattan Project.

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