Starring: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill
Directed by: Laura Poitras (“P.O.V.”)
While she was in production of a documentary about post 9/11 national security, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Laura Poitras (1988’s “P.O.V.”) began to receive encrypted emails from a figure identifying themselves as “Citizen Four,” who was ready and willing to blow the whistle on the National Security Agency (NSA) and other intelligence agencies around the globe. Eventually, her and two other journalists are summoned to Hong Kong where NSA contractor Edward Snowden prepares to divulge thousands of government secrets, all to be leaked to the press and captured on film in the intriguing documentary “Citizenfour.”
After a very specific set of instructions, the first time we meet Snowden is in a hotel room, ready to reveal anything the trio of handpicked reporters he has selected want to know. From there, the film is a documentation of Snowden in the act of blowing the whistle on the NSA and leaking thousands of documents. Most of the focus lies upon the NSA’s access to actual conversation content without needing probably cause or a warrant. It is mesmerizing footage, as it is essentially a first-hand account of a major event in American intelligence history. What makes it even more stunning is the fact that it is being presented privately before being published, so it is not only without the uproar and fallout, but we see the journalists plan every step of how the leak will be presented and how it changes based on international reaction. These scenes also allow Snowden to clearly present his motives and explanations for his actions in the most direct way possible.
As a subject, Snowden is intelligent, calm, and very calculated all with a slight dash of paranoia. He is acutely aware of the consequences of his actions, yet he shows no signs of nervousness or any tinge of regret. He doesn’t want to hide his identity, but rather come forward when the time is right. It is captivating to see the wheels turning as Snowden navigates his way through the best possible way for the story to get out there or even as Snowden unplugs phones and uses devices to hide passwords in case someone is watching or listening. As a person and as a film, Snowden and “Citizenfour” will likely draw comparisons to Julian Assange and the documentary “We Steal Secrets.” Snowden, however, is an infinitely more interesting subject. Whereas Assange was egotistical and was not the main person at risk, not actually leaking documents himself but rather solely providing hosting, Snowden is directly at risk and repeatedly pushes his ego aside, deflecting his personal story in order to keep the focus on the intelligence leak itself. This could very well be presentation and editing, as the film is very clearly in favor of Snowden’s actions and seeing him as a positive figure, but it is an interesting element nonetheless.
There is a certain surreal quality to “Citizenfour,” as the audience is watching what has been called “the biggest intelligence leak in NSA history” happening privately before their very eyes. This quality is perhaps hammered home hardest in the moments that Snowden is casually watching American TV coverage of the leak and the international debate it has immediately sparked from his hotel room in Hong Kong. Some of the footage can get a little mundane and the film takes a noticeable dip any time Snowden isn’t on screen, but “Citizenfour” is a riveting and fascinating collection of footage that feels important and essential, regardless of where you lie on the issue. It will undoubtedly add another complex layer to an already hot-button debate.