X Files

Amy Taubin on Laura Poitras and Henrik Moltke’s Project X

 Laura Poitras and Henrik Moltke, Project X, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 10 minutes.

THE MOST SINISTER ESPIONAGE THRILLER currently playing in a theater in New York (and soon to be released online) is a mere ten minutes long. Laura Poitras and Henrik Moltke’s Project X ends with a low-angle shot that makes the exceedingly strange, windowless building at 33 Thomas Street in TriBeCa look like the Monolith in Kubrick’s 2001.

There is almost nothing in this elegant connect-the-dots exercise that lower Manhattan denizens with any awareness of the workings of power didn’t take for granted decades ago. Designed by the architectural firm John Carl Warnecke & Associates, the 550-foot-tall nuclear-proof concrete-and-granite building named Project X was completed in 1974. Its stated purpose was to house and secure the long-distance telecommunications hub of the New York Telephone Company, then a subsidiary of AT&T.

A small AT&T logo is the only signage on the building today. I remember looking at 33 Thomas Street with a raised eyebrow after AT&T was served a subpoena in 1976 by the congressional subcommittee investigating the FBI’s illegal wiretapping of Civil Rights activists. Since then, AT&T has been regarded as one of the corporations most helpful to government security agencies, a reputation confirmed by documents released by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. In 2015, the New York Times published a front-page story with the headline “AT&T Helped U.S. Spy on Internet on a Vast Scale.” (Poitras and Moltke were two of the six bylines on that story.)

Using the Snowden material, Poitras, director of CITIZENFOUR, the Academy Award–winning documentary on Snowden, and Moltke, an award-winning Danish investigative journalist, make a compelling case for 33 Thomas Street being TITANPOINTE, the codename for one of the NSA’s primary surveillance sites, monitoring land- and long-distance telephone lines and, via the four satellite dishes on its roof, mobile and internet communications. Nothing in the film or in the Snowden documents nails the exact relationship between AT&T and the NSA. Nor do they establish for certain that the NSA has been given or has rented space in the building, nor what telecommunications data might have been provided to the NSA, legally or illegally. Nevertheless, the narrative is compelling.

Even at a compressed ten minutes, the anxiety-producing visuals and rhythms of Project X bring to mind two great spy thrillers of the 1970s, Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) and Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975), both extraordinary for being specific to their time and prescient of the present moment. Project X employs an NSA training manual released in the Snowden documents and read in voice-over by Michelle Williams and Rami Malek (both expert in conveying multiple levels of meaning in seemingly straightforward instructions) to delineate how agents rent cars and travel undercover, how they gain entry to TITANPOINTE, and how they should communicate with their families in case of emergency.

The film is a teaser for a far more detailed article by Ryan Gallagher and Moltke, published on the invaluable investigative website the Intercept. (Field of Vision—the short-documentary film production unit created by Poitras, AJ Schnack, and Charlotte Cook—and the Intercept are both part of First Look Media.) The film and the article also might inspire inquiring minds to wonder if the intel that led NSA director Michael Rogers to state a few days ago that there shouldn’t be “any doubt in anyone’s mind” that there was a “conscious effort by a nation-state to sway the result of the 2016 presidential election” was harvested at 33 Thomas Street. And if there might have been related hard intel about potentially illegal communications between the President-elect and those around him with said nation-state, and what leverage that intel, if it exists, would give the NSA now and in the future. Think hard about the Iran treaty.

Project X plays at the IFC Center in New York Friday, November 18 through Thursday, November 24 before shows of Cameraperson at 5:45 PM, Fire at Sea at 3:20 PM, and Weiner at 4:50 PM.