Citizenfour (2014) / Documentary
MPAA Rated: R for language
Running Time: 114 min.
Cast: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, William Binney, Ewan MacAskill, Julian Assange, Jeremy Scahill
Director: Laura Poitras
Review published November 28, 2014
Citizenfour is the third documentary from Academy Award nominated filmmaker Laura Poitras (The Oath, My Country My Country), now a Berliner since she's been made to feel less than welcome in her native U.S.A., examining the American reaction (or perhaps overreaction) to the events of 9/11. It looks briefly but intimately at 29-year-old NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, whose initial alias in encrypted missives provides the film's title, and his efforts to reach out to her as someone to whom he can unload information that he knows will change his life forever, and likely for worse -- far, far worse -- but he couldn't in good conscience keep to himself. The information contained details the vast ramping up of the scope of the American government's ability to spy on its citizens, basically stating that anyone's activity, foreign and domestic, could be (and likely is) recorded, not just terrorist suspects. Basically, it's the warning that society is fast becoming the kind of place that George Orwell warned us all about in "1984".
We meet Snowden in a hotel room in Hong Kong, willing to be filmed for the purpose of a documentary from someone he knows he can trust in Poitras and an investigative reporter in The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald. Everyone is on edge because of the highly classified bombshell that Snowden is about to deliver in the form of top secret documents he has secured while on the job working as a high-clearance systems administrator in the NSA offices. Throughout the week, Snowden gives them details on what he knows and proof from actual documents he has been able to procure from his work at the NSA before going into hiding, not telling anyone he knows anything before hopping a plane to meet them so as not to make life unbearable for his loved ones.
As each day goes by, the more paranoid those involved become, and they can feel the noose of government interest begin to tighten around them in order to find out just who the source of the leaks is, what is known, and the nature of how much information, and what, is going to be divulged. There's really not much of an escape plan, with Snowden knowing full well that eventually, probably very soon, he's going to have to face the music, and it isn't going to be pretty. Poitras' documentary also follows the aftermath of the Hong Kong hotel sessions for all three of them, and how the government can make life very unpleasant for those who dare to expose them for what they do. That this film has been made in real time, before and during the time when the incendiary events would happen, makes it a rarity. Most docs piece together newsworthy events after the fact, and aren't as entrenched in the fabric of the actual news as it is about to happen as this one is.
Though a documentary at its core, Poitras manages to package the film together in a stylistic way, featuring unsettling soundtrack selections, a couple taken from Nine Inch Nails' 2008 album "Ghosts_I-IV", only offering narration (not hers - she remains off screen) when absolutely necessary, and doing most of the work with written words from email messages and texts on the screen to tie up all of the loose ends. While some viewers may find it a slow moving piece, to those interested in the subject of privacy and government intrusion, it definitely will open some eyes. You'll learn, incidentally, that many landline (VOIP) phones can be used to listen in on what's going on in the rooms they are in, even when the receiver is hung up. You should also, for the same reason, keep your cell phones in the refrigerator if you don't want to be listened in on during some risky conversations. The very devices that enable freedom to inform anyone, anywhere, at a moment's notice is also what makes us vulnerable to government intrusion. The only way to ensure absolute privacy is to meet where no one can see, covered in a blanket, using plain old paper and pen, then disposing all of it all beyond reparability when it is done.
While Citizenfour is increasingly absorbing as it goes along, and it definitely delivers what it seeks to do, namely, establish Snowden and his message as credible, it is probably about a half hour longer than it needs to be, and probably would have had more impact if the tempo weren't as slack as it sometimes comes across. Nevertheless, as a documentary that keeps the discussion on privacy and government bounds (and its ability to bully) on the front burner, it's an important and alarming discussion to have in public debate, especially in how civil liberties can so easily be taken away from people we've entrusted enough to elect into public office (President Obama, who campaigned against the post-9/11 Bush policies, has only seen them intensify).
At the end of it, I, for one, am just glad I still live in a country where such a film that puts its own government under such a dreary cloud of scrutiny can be shown. I just hope that me telling you to put Citizenfour on your own personal 'watch list' doesn't make the NSA put me on theirs.
©2014 Vince Leo