Despite their support for government on most issues, Hollywood liberals can often be counted on for at least token opposition on some issues, mostly those involving war, and the infringement of civil rights. But as anyone who pays careful attention to mainstream politics is aware (and if you aren’t included in that category, don’t worry; you aren’t missing out on much of importance), even that token opposition seems to wane whenever a self-proclaimed “liberal” is in office. The antiwar movement that characterized Democratic and liberal opposition to the Presidency of George W. Bush lost momentum as soon as President Obama assumed the office. Hollywood was openly critical of Bush administration’s foreign policy. Academy Award winners during that time included the anti-war documentary The Fog of War; and Syriana, which although not explicitly anti-war was at least critical of American foreign policy. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 would likely have won an Oscar of its own in 2004 if it had not been disqualified on a technicality. But during the Obama terms, foreign policy dissent has been comparatively absent from Hollywood, with awards going to The Hurt Locker, and multiple nominations to the blatantly propagandistic Zero Dark Thirty, and to this year’s Clint Eastwood biopic, American Sniper. (The only Obama-era Oscar winner that I would consider to have been anti-war would be Avatar, and that’s only at a stretch.) This ought to surprise nobody—politics makes hypocrites out of everyone, and even the most passionate opponent of what The Other Party is up to is likely to tolerate it when his own party does it.

Which, I believe, makes Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, which followed Edward Snowden in the days following his leak of information regarding the NSA’s mass surveillance program, stand out for its victory at the Oscars for Best Documentary. Usually, I don’t care enough about the Academy’s opinion to pay any attention at all to the Oscars; sometimes I’m annoyed enough by it to consciously avoid Oscar winners. (Yes, I’m aware that is rather petty, and I’ve probably missed out on some good cinema because of it.) But I made Citizenfour the first movie I’ve ever watched because it won an Oscar. It is unusually straightforward in its criticism of the government, and of the Obama administration in particular, despite being distributed by a studio owned by none other than Harvey Weinstein, an outspoken supporter of President Obama and previous critic of Snowden, who said that the documentary “changed [his] opinion of [Snowden]”.

One possible reason for Citizenfour’s win could simply be that it is a great film. Poitras, as usual, excels at doing a lot with very little, making every shot count, never counting on fluff or filler. Thanks to the immersive quality of the camerawork, even knowing the outcome of Snowden’s story, one finds one’s self sharing the anxiety of Snowden and the other major subject of the film, journalist Glenn Greenwald, as they deal with the immediate aftermath of Snowden’s actions. Breaks in the “action” are used to widen the story’s perspective somewhat, but while keeping the focus on the issue of the surveillance state.

But I think there may be another reason, having to do with the nature of the subject material itself.

On most issues, it is not hard to convince the people to support the state. Most people are largely ignorant of most things, after all; and natural aptitude for learning notwithstanding, experts in one field are not inherently more trustworthy than anyone else in the fields they have not personally studied, and celebrities almost never deserve the credibility they are given with regard to any topic on which they opine.

In fact, governments thrive on making controversial subjects as opaque as possible. One obvious example is the subject of economics, wherein simple and straightforward presentations of economic theory are dismissed offhand as “popularizers” in favor of dense and convoluted theories. By this means, government keeps the public ignorant of the way things actually work, and thereby ensures that the public will allow them to continue to manage society with as much power as they, the government officials themselves, deem necessary. This is not the only reason why one almost never hears celebrities coming out in favor of economic liberty, but I believe that even if it were, it would be sufficient. Programs such as the New Deal and the Great Society passed into public acceptance with hardly a word of opposition from our esteemed celebrity “experts”. Knowledge of what was really happening was out of the reach of most people, and “most people” includes the substantial number of celebrities who are expected to say things about which they have little to no knowledge of their own. Their role as a propaganda machine is fairly solid on matters of economic theory.

The same is true for divisive topics such as the prohibitions of drugs and firearms. One might find a small contingent of those who normally serve as court intellectuals defecting on occasion where those things are concerned, but in general, the government tells “the experts” what to tell the people, and their celebrity mouthpieces do their part. Despite their indulgences in illicit substances, celebrities are not affected by the War on Drugs in the same way or to the same extent as, for instance, the urban poor; and from their vantage point it is fairly easy to accept the narrative that guns are bad, and the way to deal with things that are bad is to make them illegal.

Issues like freedom of speech, on the other hand, pose an inherent difficulty to the government. One cannot talk about one’s ability to freely communicate without using that very ability, which means it takes a lot more work to convince people to shut up about it. Whereas many topics are considered too occult for the average mind to penetrate (and so we had better shut up about it unless we’re simply repeating what the designated experts are saying), more brazen lies need to be told about the need for censorship. The hypocrisy of the political class, and the unilateral benefit they obtain through restrictive policies, become more obvious when “the expert” has the right to speak, and the people do not.

Thus, active support for censorship is relatively small. Yes, of course the propagandists always talk—if they ever shut up completely, the state would disappear entirely. As in one scene in Citizenfour (an interview with Ari Fleischer, starting at around 54 minutes) reveals, security statist political figures will feed approved speech to their supporters in the media, and as one can find in any comments section discussing the film or its subjects, devoted followers of those figures will eagerly regurgitate that propaganda. But regardless, it seems that freedom of speech, and the civil liberties issues associated with it, is fertile common ground between those of us who oppose state power on principle, and those with a more mainstream political outlook, because the political class cannot rely upon those who usually popularize their ideas when it comes to curtailing the very freedoms that make their art (and the wealth and fame that go along with it) possible. They would have to employ the more direct route used by Stalin and Mao of openly suppressing unapproved speech in order to accomplish that.

And they might try to do that… but then, they might not. It may be too late for that. As those in the liberty community who celebrate technology have often said, the cat is out of the bag. The Internet cannot be easily reversed with the stroke of the legislator’s pen, and neither can the tools by which privacy on the Internet can be maintained, which Citizenfour spotlights, be reversed. Citizenfour goes well beyond the idea of freedom of speech, addressing the need for privacy in a free society, even making reference to the idea that liberty and privacy are essentially inseparable as legal concepts (an idea which, though already well known to crypto-enthusiasts, deserves more attention within the liberty community at large). Citizenfour contains a profound dual focus: on one hand, the dire threat to liberty posed by state surveillance; and on the other, a cheerful presentation of the means by which the state can be defeated by the average computer user who is willing to take a few extra steps toward protecting his or her privacy. Those means were even listed by name in the film’s credits.

And Citizenfour won an Oscar.

I admit, this could amount to little, in the long run. It could be a fluke. It could be that I have completely misunderstood the reasons for its success in the Academy. But obviously I don’t think so, or I wouldn’t have written this article. I think we’ve found a point past which it is dangerous for the state to openly extend itself. I consider this a reason to hope.

I conclude with three suggestions. First, watch the film. It is worth it for the art as well as for the message. Second, take Ed Snowden’s advice. Care about your privacy, and use the free tools (described in the article linked above) available to protect it. And third, embrace the common ground that we have with those who made Citizenfour’s Oscar happen. Because privacy is, in fact, the key to freedom. No government, however powerful, can oppress what it cannot see. As we have seen from the success of Citizenfour, from the popularity of technologies like Bitcoin among some members of the political left, and of general popularity of online privacy tools and opposition to government surveillance, one need not fully embrace the philosophy of liberty in order to embrace ideas that, if fully implemented, would lead to a free society.