New York Film Fest: 'Citizenfour' Hacks Way to Top of Uber-Competitive Doc Oscar Race

Citizenfour Still - H 2014
L. Poitras

Citizenfour Still - H 2014

Steve James' Life Itself, Alan Hicks' Keep on Keepin' On, Gabe Polsky's Red Army and several other films look like formidable contenders for the best documentary feature Oscar. But Citizenfour, Laura Poitras' highly anticipated documentary about Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor turned whistleblower whose information Poitras and fellow journalist Glenn Greenwald helped to bring to the attention of the world, is going to be very hard to beat.

This authoritative portrait of Snowdenthe first-ever late addition to the main slate of the New York Film Festival in the event's 52-year history — had its world premiere at Alice Tully Hall on Friday night, where a packed house greeted its end-credits and its filmmaker's postscreening introduction with prolonged standing ovations. Radius-TWC released a trailer of the film on Friday and will distribute it in the U.S. starting on Oct. 24.

Citizenfour marks the third installment in what Poitras has called her "trilogy about America post-9/11." The first, My Country, My Country (2006), which looked at Iraqis under U.S. occupation, was Oscar-nominated. The second, The Oath (2010), which focused on Yemenis who wound up at Guantanamo Bay, was not. Meanwhile, the latest entry — which derives its title from the name under which Snowden initially introduced himself to Poitras online — is the most polished and engaging of the three, most industry insiders with whom I spoke after the screening seemed to feel.

Read more Edward Snowden Doc 'Citizenfour' Reveals Existence of Second NSA Whistleblower 

The film, much of which Poitras shot when she and Greenwald traveled to Hong Kong to meet Snowden for the first time in June 2013, offers an unprecedented look into the motivations, mindset and character of the then-29-year-old as he made his fateful decision to leak top-secret documents about government surveillance of citizens to the press. It paints him as an intelligent, charming and quite funny character — but, it must be acknowledged, that portrait was crafted by a friend.

Poitras — who never features her own image onscreen despite being present for and integrally involved in nearly all the events that the film documents — clearly was not a disinterested observer chronicling a story wherever it led her. Instead, she might be called a collaborator. She engaged with Snowden like a friend, helped him to achieve his objectives, housed him in her own hotel room when his became unsafe and even advised him, at times, with Greenwald, about how to help himself. (Greenwald asks oncamera, at one point, "How do we do this in the right way?")

Read more 'Citizenfour': NYFF Review

This will bother some viewers, but not necessarily the 200 or so members of the Academy's documentary branch, which has a long history of nominating docs by filmmakers who used their films to question the conduct of the American government. Among others: The Panama Deception (1991); Waco: The Rules of Engagement (1997); The Fog of War (2003); Sicko (2007); Taxi to the Dark Side (2007); The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009); Gasland (2010); Inside Job (2010); The Invisible War (2012); and, earlier this year, Dirty Wars, which was co-produced by, co-written by and centers around Jeremy Scahill — who was also an advisor on, is featured in and appeared at the Tully on Friday night on behalf of Citizenfour.

In other words, Citizenfour appears to be on track to produce Oscar nomination number two for Poitras — and perhaps even Oscar victory number one.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg