Dir: Laura Poitras
Citizenfour plays like a modern paranoid thriller about the erosion of our civil liberties and rise of the global surveillance state, but gains considerable impact from the fact that it’s a documentary about what’s happening here and now, in our lifetimes. Following My Country, My Country and The Oath, documentarian and reporter Laura Poitras completes her post-9/11 triptych of films here with the story of her meetings with Edward Snowden and the world changing NSA leaks.
Set to the jangly and unnerving strains of Trent Reznor’s “Ghosts”, the movie opens much as a Michael Mann thriller might, with some context given and a pervading mood of unease set. Having already begun work on a film about post-9/11 surveillance, director Poitras was contacted in January 2013 by a man promising inside information that would certainly be worth her time. He was known only as “Citizenfour”. After a series of checks and balances consisting of encrypted messages and careful vetting, the whistleblower agrees to meet Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald in extradition-unfriendly (and therefore perfect for their purposes) Hong Kong in June 2013. What happened next is now mostly a matter of public record, but we get to be in the same room for the first time as the biggest intelligence leak in history shook the world to its core.
It’s in a non-descript Hong Kong hotel room that we first meet Edward Snowden in the flesh and get to see his side of the story in a series of interviews conducted over 8 days. Snowden – a fresh-faced 29-year-old systems admin for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) – turns out to be a modern-day Deep Throat (think Watergate scandal not Linda Lovelace) harbouring perhaps the most explosive and condemning intelligence leak of the past 50 years. It’s gripping to watch these events occur, as the doc takes a fly-on-the-wall approach and we literally see history unfold. It happens not with a bang but through casual conversation, as the veil of secrecy behind the NSA’s activities is pulled back and Greenwald and Scottish colleague Ewen McAskill feverishly report it all for The Guardian and the world.
Massive data farms in Utah, collusion with major ISP and telecommunications networks, a lack of oversight on a global scale, and a network of information gathering so all-consuming as to render the quaint notion of “privacy” all but obsolete; it’s the stuff of dystopian science fiction but it’s happening right now. Even with some foreknowledge of what Snowden revealed, the info still hits with the weight of a sledgehammer in the context of the film. Poitras films it all with a sober hand and, excepting some e-mail exchanges and online messages, opts to mostly stay off-camera and focus on Snowden, her fellow journalists, some other key talking heads (like former NSA analyst turned whistleblower William Binney and hacking expert/millenial Jacob Applebaum), and the wide-reaching fallout from the leaks.
Documentaries are, by their nature, biased. The presence of a camera will change someone’s reaction and, for those being filmed without their knowledge, the filmmaker ultimately chooses what to show and not show, thereby (sometimes inadvertently) introducing a point-of-view. Citizenfour does a relatively good job of presenting what occurred with a minimum amount of editorializing, although some of the asides from the colourful Greenwald are amusing and humanizing, showing what it would be like to be on the ground floor of such a significant event. Snowden himself comes off as bright and idealistic, willing to risk much if not all for his ideas of civil liberty and freedom. The government is represented by an obstinate defence lawyer in a class action suit, the head of the NSA Keith Alexander, and even a quote from Obama himself. What’s shown of their side of the story directly contradicts much of the information contained in the leaks*.
In its approach and weight, Citizenfour most resembles the recent doc The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer. Both films examine critical occurrences that have deep-seated implications for their respective countries (America and Indonesia). While Citizenfour may have more of a global impact, they are both about bravely standing up against monolithic and ingrained systems of injustice and what happens next. They both also elide some of the more complex and substantial historical and political context of their respective subjects, instead choosing to take a narrower focus that doesn’t overwhelm viewers.
Because it’s a true story and is so recent, Citizenfour offers little in the way of closure. It’s more of a call-to-arms than a self-contained narrative. Having been branded a traitor and charged under the Espionage Act, Snowden has political asylum in Moscow for the time being but his future, much like everyone else’s, remains uncertain. This is the beginning of his story, told soberly and with little fanfare, allowing the implications of the leak to take centre stage. Mostly gripping, at times inert (stylizing this story would probably have the wrong choice), and wholly illuminating, Citizenfour is essential and powerful – an unfortunate but necessary document of how we live now.
*Note: I love the U.S. government and all its respective departments! The NSA is the greatest and I would appreciate my Google searches remaining private and locked down for ever and ever. Thank you.