Editor’s Notes: Citizenfou
The genius of Citizenfour is that it represents the convergence of a pertinent topic, elite storytelling, and a resonating impact which is, for at least several years to come, yet unresolved. To bill this film as “the Edward Snowden documentary” (as even I have done) is to cheapen both the execution of the film itself, as well as the broad importance Citizenfour holds in American cinema and politics. Director Laura Poitras shoots and ultimately crafts the film like an effective undercover thriller, but don’t be fooled; the people are real, the documents are authentic, and the footage is the purest form of “source material” possible, making it an achievement in documentary filmmaking.
Director Laura Poitras shoots and ultimately crafts the film like an effective undercover thriller, but don’t be fooled; the people are real, the documents are authentic …
Last summer, former National Security Agency contract worker Edward Snowden fled to Hong Kong after trading a series of elaborately encrypted emails with Laura Poitras and later Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. Citizenfour begins with a lengthy prelude which introduces this correspondence and gives a sharp overview of the U.S. government’s policies on surveilling their own citizens. In perhaps the weakest section of the film (with regards to equal representation of the separate parties), Poitras shows a history of denial on the part of the intelligence community about phone, email, and location tracking. From there we meet Snowden, Greenwald, and another journalist (Ewen MacAskill) in Snowden’s suite in Hong Kong as they decide how best to release the information, and what message is being sent. Perhaps the most enlightening aspect of this previously unseen footage is witnessing the complementary expert opinions at play between the journalists and the man who is now officially considered an American traitor. Snowden has information he knows is valuable, and he understand that there will be negative consequences for him in leaking the documents (although it becomes irrevocably clear he doesn’t know exactly what these consequences are), while Greenwald especially looks to break the story in an ethical, methodical, and above all meaningful way which will most forcefully bring to light the atrocities Snowden has uncovered: that the U.S. government is spying on ordinary, private citizens without legal probable cause.
In the way Citizenfour perhaps skews unevenly towards the accuser (not using any formal elements, just simply in screen time), one of the more enlightening sides of the film is in its chronicling of Snowden himself. While the familiar first interview of Snowden (released last summer) does find its way on screen near the halfway mark, many of the other instances of the camera rolling more faithfully fill out who the man actually is, and how he’s perceiving the dramatic events he has caused. For a film which very obviously takes his side in the issue of digital privacy, Poitras importantly shows an impure version of Snowden: the suppressed grins as he sees his stories break into American news coverage, the way he enthusiastically explains how their hotel room could possibly be bugged. These moments are small but not insignificant, as the filmmaker is successfully able to dig at Snowden’s deeper motivations without having to even ask a question. Snowden’s politics aren’t entirely righteous, but his image in the film isn’t doctored either.
Citizenfour stands alone in that it isn’t a portrait of an issue. Instead, it is the event itself which raised the issue to the general public, starting one of the largest and most important discussions about privacy and liberty in the digital age.
In this interesting space of evenly presenting Snowden as an individual is where Greenwald and Poitras feel most present and essential. As the two players with the technical, ethical, and mental poise to tackle a multilayered issue, they too play complementary roles which are both vital to Snowden’s process of leaking information as well as the making of Citizenfour itself. When the story of secret government surveillance hit the news, and specifically when Snowden became the focal point, what we were largely unaware of was the effort and decision-making process that was necessary, and what Poitras is able to do with incredible aplomb is to seat us in that hotel room during those discussions, giving the middle section of the film a very present and important impression. Specifically, when Snowden insists he has thought through the ramifications for his family, including his longtime partner, and his employment opportunities, Greenwald is also navigating unknown waters-they must identify the correct method of unveiling the information so that it will have the most impact on future domestic and foreign policy. Additionally, Greenwald and MacAskill must handle Snowden’s identity and his personal story in some way, and they all mustn’t be shut down or infiltrated in all these processes (sounds more and more like a spy thriller, huh?)
Citizenfour stands alone in that it isn’t a portrait of an issue. Instead, it is the event itself which raised the issue to the general public, starting one of the largest and most important discussions about privacy and liberty in the digital age. Instead of a documentary about Edward Snowden or about the leaked documents, Citizenfour is the voice of Edward Snowden, a point encapsulated by the fact that several of the allegations made by Greenwald at the end of the film are better classified as “breaking news” rather than simply the end of a documentary.
The irony of the situation is that, as the film is now over a year and a half past the events it records, the allegations haven’t enraged the populace in the way Greenwald, MacAskill, Poitras, and Snowden most likely thought it should. It became a flashpoint for a summer, and has since been simmering on the back pages, infrequently popping up with some new accusation or development. But this isn’t to diminish the actions of Snowden or those who aided the unveiling of the NSA’s spying program. As Poitras expertly highlights, Snowden is the individual who stood up, the one who outmaneuvered the government’s bullying tactics and released information that he felt was vital. Whether any particular moviegoer agrees with Snowden’s actions, what can be sure is that he took remarkable steps to release the details of an unrealized level of government surveillance, all while being documented by a talented director to create a truly unprecedented work of nonfiction cinema.
The genius of Citizenfour is that it represents the convergence of a pertinent topic, elite storytelling, and a resonating impact which is, for at least several years to come, yet unresolved.