I try not to read too much about movies before I see them. This one took a while for me to finally catch, and it was impossible not to get a certain impression of what it would be like. Considering the high praise and the tone among some critics that this is an “important” film, I expected the definitive chronicle of the NSA scandal and Edward Snowden’s story. There’s nothing wrong with this movie, but I got something completely different out of it.
In 2012, filmmaker Laura Poitras was far from a newcomer in the field of domestic surveillance. She had already made two movies on the consequences of the war on terror, My Country, My Country (2006) and The Oath (2010), and this one completed a trilogy. In January 2013, Poitras was contacted by a 29-year-old named Edward Snowden. Initially calling himself “Citizen Four”, Snowden offered to reveal information from the National Security Agency that would prove how far the agency and the Bush and Obama administrations had gone in order to collect data on America’s enemies, an operation so huge that it threatened to wipe out any notion of privacy for not only U.S. citizens but millions of people all over the world. In June 2013, Poitras went to Hong Kong together with Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian and a colleague, intelligence reporter Ewen MacAskill, to start interviewing Snowden who had left the United States without anyone there realizing what was about to happen…
A fly on the wall
There is a certain pleasure in watching this film, a sense of being part of history as it is written. I’m sure that Poitras and Greenwald shared that feeling at the time as well. We are introduced to Snowden and hear him talk about his past as an infrastructure analyst for the NSA, and what he learned about the agency. Watching these conversations take place in a hotel room, knowing that when the interviews were filmed the world (including the Obama administration) still had no idea about what was happening, is fascinating, to put it mildly. We’re a fly on the wall and we can’t take our eyes off Snowden, wondering what makes him tick. Is he a narcissist or an idealist? What’s going on in his mind, as the leaks are published and U.S. authorities begin their manhunt? The value of this film is exactly that, the thrill of watching Snowden, and on a minor level Greenwald handling the biggest scoop of his life. And that goes a long way. But anyone looking for depth here will miss out. I’m still waiting for a documentary that will tell the story of the NSA and its programs and Snowden, but also sort through the challenge of maintaining an effective intelligence program without compromising our integrity. This one makes a few attempts in its second half to address the larger issues, but it’s still on a superficial level that deals more with emotions than hard facts.
There’s a moment in the film where Snowden talks about how important it is for him that the subsequent media discussion of the leaks focuses on the issue and not on him, although he realizes that he will certainly become a celebrity. I don’t know how he feels about this film, but Citizenfour is almost completely about him, not the issue. So, to sum it up – thrilling documentary about a complex man… but I hope there is more to come on the issue.
Citizenfour 2014-U.S.-Germany. 114 min. Color. Produced by Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy, Dirk Wilutzky. Directed by Laura Poitras.
Trivia: Co-executive produced by Steven Soderbergh. The story of Edward Snowden (and the making of this film) was dramatized in Snowden (2016).
Oscar: Best Documentary Feature. BAFTA: Best Documentary.
Last word: “By the time Glenn and I arrived, everybody knew I was a documentary filmmaker, there were no secrets. My camera was no surprise to anyone. I do think there was sort of a general aspect that everyone was sort of taking a leap of faith, a maximum risk—everyone was all in, not knowing what the outcome would be. I did meet with lawyers before going, and they were all like, ‘Sounds risky!’ They said I shouldn’t record it, and I was like, ‘Oh no, I’ll be recording it!’ [Laughs.] They told me that was riskier, because my footage could be subpoenaed, etc.” (Poitras, The Dissolve)