In 2017, even some American liberals are looking back fondly on the presidency of George W. Bush. The documentary A Good American eviscerates that temptation by detailing how a swamp of cronyism protected intelligence failures at the National Security Agency, even though longtime eggheads there had nailed down predictive algorithms that could have forecast the terrorist attacks on 9-11.
Friedrich Moser’s film features NSA cryptologist and analyst-turned-whistleblower Bill Binney, who, like a chess master, sees meaning in streams of data: “Everything is human behavior — human behavior is extremely patterned.” He recognized patterns of interactions among agents of foreign governments and terrorist organizations that went undetected by traditional data-gathering, and developed a sophisticated program that also protected ordinary people’s privacy.
The movie is slow, quiet, and infuriating, as Binney and his small group are undermined by Gen. Michael Hayden’s NSA and inept private contractors. Binney’s nerds discover what could’ve been known, but their report is quashed, their computers are confiscated and they’re detained by armed enforcers. By design or by accident, Moser’s film evokes Netflix’s House of Cards, with sweeping helicopter-level views of Washington accompanied by gloomy horns and strings. The paranoia is further enabled by the actor playing a young Binney in reenactments (his government security career started in 1965) resembling CIA contractor/leaker Edward Snowden. Binney’s story makes clear, though, that the treacherous interlock of conspiracy and incompetence is all too real, and hardly confined to our present government.
A Good American
Directed by Friedrich Moser
The Film Collaborative
Opens February 3, Cinema Village
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 31, 2017