In January of 2013, filmmaker Laura Poitras began receiving emails from a mysterious person who only identified himself as “citizenfour” and who had information about US government surveillance on a scale unheard of in history. A few months later, after a number of encrypted email exchanges, Poitras headed to Hong Kong along with journalist Glenn Greenwald to meet the sender. The rest is history. Waiting for them in a hotel room was Edward Snowden who would hand them evidence of massive citizen surveillance and data mining by the NSA and other government agencies, and would expose our global cyber-spy program. Once it was made public by Greenwald in a series of articles published in The Guardian, it created an international storm of controversy. Was Snowden a whistleblower or a traitor?
Rather than a film looking back at what happened or an in-depth examination of the issues raised, Citizenfour gives viewers a front row seat as the drama unfolds. Poitras and her camera are there as Snowden opens up to Greenwald about what he found and why he feels the need to let the world know about it. We hear him tell the journalists to chose carefully which pieces they report, and to do it in the public interest. You’re with him in his hotel room watching TV as CNN breaks the story and the world first hears about him and the secrets he has exposed. You won’t really find out a lot that you did not already know (at least if you are a news hound,) but this film is a rare document of a single moment when one man opened a huge can of worms that has yet to be adequately addressed.
The film is made more dramatic by some very real cloak and daggerish events — Snowden trying to find a way to get out of Hong Kong to a safe haven (he ended up in Russia.) His human rights attorney helping him sneak in the back door of the UN offices. A conversation he has with Greenwald entirely in hand-written notes, which the audience doesn’t see, and which are shredded immediately. In the hotel room, Snowden disconnects the phone because people could be listening in and there is a moment when the fire alarm in the hotel keeps going off, leading him and the journalists to question whether someone is trying to get him out of his room. The whole film is very vérité, though there are some sort of heavy handed transition shots that are supposed to be metaphorical, I think, that kind of took me out of the story. And it is not great film making technically. But at the end of the day Citizenfour is an incredible document of a young idealist who decided to give up EVERYTHING for the sake of the truth and the greater good. Agree or disagree with him for his methods, this is a compelling story!
This film doesn’t need to be seen on a big screen. It might be even better at home with some friends to talk about it with afterwards over wine.