Citizenfour (Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald) – Edward Snowden is one of the most polarizing figures of the century. Like most people (I think), I feel that leaking all of that super secret NSA data was illegal and dangerous. But I have to admit that those revelations scared the hell out of me. Governments have run amok as it relates to eavesdropping and paranoia in the wake of September 11 and the all-too-real terrorism threat. Where do you draw the line? I don’t begin to have the answer.
Documentarian Laura Poitras had been looking into U.S. government surveillance post-9/11 when she began getting encrypted e-mails from an anonymous person claiming that he could prove unspeakable breaches of public trust in the name of security. He was willing to take accountability but would rely on select journalists to decide what was noteworthy in his stolen documents. Snowden picked her because of her previous work Flag Wars and My Country, My Country. He, under the e-mail name “citizenfour,” also suggested that she contact journalist Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, whose own work on government intrusion impressed him. That was the genesis of the intriguing, almost melodramatic, story of the Edward Snowden revelations.
Even those of us who follow the news closely and who are students of journalism will leave spellbound by the riveting documentary Citizenfour. While Greenwald has penned a book and gets most of the airtime, Poitras was the person filming, chronicling and reporting (in the Washington Post) about Snowden from the earliest days of the scandal. He sends her secret and stolen documents before directing her and Greenwald first to New York and then to meet him in Hong Kong. Who knew there was a camera filming all of his conversations in that Hong Kong hotel room for a week in 2012?
Poitras chooses to be the narrator (actually, she only speaks briefly in the film), moving the story forward through sub-titles on the screen. Her reporting is done through her camera and her careful, if not necessarily objective, editing. She lets Greenwald and Snowden dominate the screen while she plays videographer and storyteller.
It is a powerful story. We see Snowden not as a rogue egotist but, instead, as a committed zealot; a somewhat paranoid, apparently naïve, affable technology geek. He believes that things have gotten out of hand and decides he is willing to sacrifice his future for what he believes is all of our liberty. That isn’t to say that he is a patriot, as his supporters believe. But this documentary shows him to not to be a spy or a traitor either, at least in Poitras’ view. Watching him over a week and on screen for almost an hour – with the important understanding that our view has been carefully edited – I have to admit walking away feeling more conflicted than before.
That means that this Oscar-nominated documentary hit its mark. It makes you think, wonder and ponder. Poitras deserves the accolades and the awards she has received. Unlike a Michael Moore film, Citizenfour isn’t preachy and manipulative. That is a good thing.
If you see one documentary this year, see the badly named but superbly presented Citizenfour.