Top Five Films About Surveillance

Posted: September 13, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in Lists

Oliver Stone’s Snowden biopic is coming this Friday, but it’s far from the first film to explore surveillance. There’s actually a deep history of surveillance in cinema and now seems as good a time as any to look at some of the best. I won’t be looking at documentaries, so something like Citizenfour won’t be eligible. Rather, the focus here is on fiction films which explore some aspect of surveillance, though surveillance doesn’t necessarily have to be the main focus.

5. Captain America: The Winter Soldiercaptain-america-the-winter-soldier-imax-poster

Alright, there are certainly better movies I could have put in this slot, but I think it’s important to have at least one movie made and released in a post-Snowden NSA leak world. In the film, it is revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D (the fictional government organisation of the Marvel Universe) is secretly controlled by an evil organization which is consistently spying on American citizens for nefarious purposes under the guise of such efforts being for security. The film unambiguously portrays such actions and villainous, Captain America’s own disillusionment with government reflects the growing mistrust of government and surveillance practices many North American citizens have come to feel.

4. Modern TimesModern_Times_poster

Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is one of the definitive texts on class exploitation. This is perhaps most clear in the film’s first act, which sees Chaplin’s Little Tramp as an overworked employee on a factory assembly line. The film depicts his bosses using video surveillance (which didn’t actually exist at the time) to keep employees in-line, figuratively and literally. Another scene introduces a device called the “Billows Feeding Machine”, a device workers would be strapped into and fed during their lunch hour, effectively earning another hour of work from them while also ensuring the remain monitored and controlled throughout the day. It’s really amazing Chaplin finds such gut-busting hilarity in these bits, because at their core these are some very dark ideas about how surveillance is used to exploit the less powerful and the increasing dehumanization in surveillance technology.

3. Rear Windowrear-window-2

Most films about surveillance deal with issues of government or class, but Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is decidedly more small and personal. The story of a man trapped in his apartment who begins spying on his neighbors and suspects he sees a murder, this is really a story that addresses our personal fascination, and even obsession, with watching others. L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) is spying long before he starts to suspect a murder occurred and while others mock him for his seemingly strange hobby, they too feel compelled to look. While a lot of people fear surveillance, Rear Window argues that deep down we all get a perverse thrill from watching others. This sort of voyeurism is at the heart of many Hitchcock films, but none more so than Rear Window.

2. The Lives of Othersthe-lives-of-others

The fact that this film is actually based on real history certainly ends a lot of gravitas and legitimacy to its depiction of surveillance. The film explores the monitoring of East Berlin residents by the Stasi during the Cold War, and specifically focuses Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a captain tasked with spying on a subversive playwright. The playwright’s apartment is bugged but Wiesler begins to suspect the motives of his superiors while gradually feeling a connection to those he is spying on. The film is a biting indictment of those who control and abuse surveillance systems, but there’s also something hopeful in the way Wiesler is able to look past the dehumanization of surveillance and see his subjects as people.

1. Minority Report


Say what you will about the fantastical future presented in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, it’s amazing how perceptive and prophetic the film is. Released just a year after the Patriot Act was passed, the film explores the notion of sacrificing freedoms and privacy in favour of safety by presenting a future wherein would be murderers can be stopped and arrested before they commit a crime. However as the plot unfolds we learn the system may not be as full proof as it appears. Just that synopses raises questions regarding what freedoms we are willing to sacrifice for our safety, particularly a safety which is itself compromised and flawed. There are little details about the world building here too, like the way citizens are entirely accepting of the surveillance practices they are subjected too in spite of being very obtrusive to their day to day life. Given how we as a society increasingly accept more and more invasions to a privacy every day seemingly without a second thought, this is a frighteningly accurate portrait of our world. Also, while the focus here is on how governments use surveillance system to monitor citizens, attention is also given to data being used by corporations to advertise to individuals with more precision. Minority Report is a film that explores the consequences of surveillance while asking what we wish to accomplish with it in the first place.


  1. Chris says:

    You totally forgot about your old man’s masterpiece Conspiracy Theory!!!!!!!

  2. Andrea Simpson Myllymaki. says:

    I certainly loved The Rear Window, Minority Report, didn’t see the others.

  3. themovievampire says:

    You forgot The Conversation

    • I did consider The Conversation, but I left it off for a few reasons. Minority Report and The Lives of Others were locks, and while surveillance isn’t as prominent in Modern Times as it is in The Conversation, but the way Chaplin situates surveillance within the working world is interesting and unique to the list (also video surveillance before it existed). Winter Soldier, though easily inferior to The Conversation as a film, still felt like it had to be included as a post-Snowden depiction of surveillance. So ultimately it came down to The Conversation or Rear Window, both films about the personal obsession with watching. I ultimately went with the latter since Jeffries is more of an everyman which makes the point that his voyeuristic tendencies are actually common.

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