With revelations about the NSA’s programme of spying on US citizens earlier this year, we have never been more watched, and the security vesus privacy debate has never been more relevant. Because we at Screen Goblin have our clawed finger on the pulse of current affairs, we’re going to be watching films about watching. Films which deal with surveillance, civil liberties and abuse of power. And where better to start than the most famous surveillance-based tale ever told? It’s 1984’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:
The continued relevance of Nighteen Eighty-Four is often trumpeted in hyperbolic proportions, but with continuous news revelations about “liberal” governments spying on their citizens it’s worth taking these comparisons seriously.
A faithful adaptation of the famous novel, Nighteen Eighty-Four follows Winston Smith, an ordinary man in an extraordinary dystopian future where people are watched 24 hours a day and live in fear of being accused of “thought crime”. He works at the “Ministry of Truth” where he’s in charge of altering documents and newspaper articles to fit history as it is rewritten by the party.
Made in London in the exact months detailed in the novel, it’s a carefully and precisely produced film. As bleak as any distopian future, John Hurt turns in an excellent performance as Winston, capturing his lonely despair. There’s also some great music by the Eurythmics giving it a disconcerting, minimalistic, electronic feel. The fact the film is now quite old means that it’s probably closer to what Orwell imagined than if it was made now and included an extrapolation of modern technology. Sure, we have better technology now than much of what is in this film, but retrofuturism and the way the future changes based on the time it was imagined is fascinating, and while we can point to aspects of Nineteen Eighty-Four and observe their inaccuracy, mostly in the sense of the technology imagined, it is certainly close to Orwell’s vision, which is to be commended. It’s grimy rather than shiny; the poverty of the era present in every frame. And, yes, it’s still relevant today.
One sense in which it keeps its relevance is the way those in power manipulate language to suit their own ends. “Spin” is the now widely accepted political process of presenting information in such a way that it appears positive, even if it isn’t. The British ministry responsible for invading foreign countries in no longer called the “Ministry of War” it’s the “Ministry of Defence”, “torture” has become “enhanced interrogation” and an evacuation of an embassy is a “reduction in staffing“.
There’s also the telescreen, that sits on the wall of every home, constantly pumping propaganda into people’s bedrooms and watching their every move simultaneously. While we are not quite at this stage, the idea of a screen in every room is accurate, and in the UK we are now the most watched nation on the planet. On an average day a Brit will be caught on around 70 CCTV cameras, and even Orwell didn’t foresee the presence of surveillance in the streets. One of the most popular arguments used by the defenders of surveillance technology is that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. Would the people who argue this also support compulsory telescreens in their houses?
The following contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen or read Nineteen Eighty-Four, why not?
Bradley Manning (right), the young soldier responsible for 2009’s Wikileaks revelations, recently made a public apology for his actions, following three years of detention without trial, most of which has been spent in grim solitary confinement supposedly dictated by his fragile mental health. Nineteen Eighty-Four ends with Winston Smith’s sincere admission of guilt following prolonged torture. It is, of course, unclear whether Manning truly meant his apology or if he was making a last attempt to reduce his sentence. What we do know is that Manning has struggled with his gender identity, and expressed one of his greatest fears was appearing in the world’s media as a man, something which has since happened and no doubt caused him enormous strain on top of the unimaginable stress he must have already been subject to. Whether sincere or not, can Manning’s confession be seen as any more meaningful than Winston’s? Or are they both just the product of an authoritarian regime successfully controlling people’s minds? It’s certainly hard to find any meaningful moral difference between the two, who both dared to question authority and the status quo, both making a significant sacrifice and facing their greatest fears, in Manning’s case for the greater good of bringing the truth about the Afghan war to light, and in Winston’s to commit a tiny act of rebellion against an oppressive regime.
Manning has also been held up as a traitor in a Goldstein-esque way with his long imprisonment without trial and charge of “aiding the enemy” in spite of doing no such thing in any measurable sense. But the true Goldstein of our era must be Osama bin Laden. Following 9/11, finding bin Laden was held up as being of paramount importance to US foreign policy and a big argument behind the invasion of Afghanistan. This isn’t to deny the role bin Laden actually played by comparing him to the probably fictitious of Emmanuel Goldstein, but to claim the idea of bin Laden has been used and inflated to justify the invasion of foreign lands and the implementation of extensive anti-terror legislation.
Nineteen Eighty-Four has had a huge impact for its distopian vision and has become the template of oppressive state power. This is an accurate and engaging adaptation which captures the bleak future and makes one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time into a great science fiction film in its own right.