It’s in the murky space between two words, whistleblower and traitor, that the crux of Silenced rests. Filmmaker James Spione attempts to trace the line between them in the stories of three people—a CIA operative, an NSA administrator, and a Justice Department lawyer—each wrenched from routine by an extraordinary decision to speak out. Spione’s prevailing message is clear: Since Sept. 11, 2001, the place for the principled protester is all but gone; what’s left instead is a state too eager to brand every objection a betrayal. It’s ironic that, in defending subtlety from the blunt force of government, Spione is guilty of a heavy hand himself. Black-and-white re-enactments are full of clichéd knitting brows and secret meetings on the National Mall. Our heroes stare meaningfully at monuments and, in case their martyrdom wasn’t obvious, a choir scores the downfall of one former spy. Still, in the moments when Spione forgets the symbolism and just lets the details breathe, the stories thread together to make for one unsettling warning.

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