'Citizenfour': New York Review

Citizenfour Still - H 2014
L. Poitras

Citizenfour Still - H 2014

An entirely unexpected, incendiary but cool documentary about surveillance secrets downloader Edward Snowden.

The Edward Snowden documentary premiered at the New York Film Festival

Talk about getting the inside story, lifting the veil, getting a closeup look at the man behind the curtain. The most famous and/or infamous fugitive from American justice in a long time, Edward Snowden, is profiled at the very moment he was spilling the beans on the National Security Agency's massive surveillance efforts in Laura Poitras' unique documentary Citizenfour. For someone who claims he acted without any interest in personal aggrandizement and, with good reason, has kept himself out of the spotlight, Snowden is quite the star here. Given that the filmmaker collaborated closely with the subject on this top-secret project and was, in fact, contacted by him rather than the other way around, the point of view is a given. But no matter one's personal stance about what Snowden did, this revelatory work is fascinating and thought-provoking, if, at the same time, oddly lacking in tension; unlike the provocations of Michael Moore or Oliver Stone, the temperature of this film is very cool. Its massive news value, which includes the bombshell suggestion that the chain of command for electronic spying goes all the way to the Oval Office, makes this one of the major and defining documentaries of recent times.

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As if in a dream that any political documentary filmmaker would not imagine could come true, Poitras and her collaborator, journalist and author Glenn Greenwald, were in the Hong Kong hotel room with Snowden for eight days in early June of 2013 when the 29-year-old private contractor for the NSA and CIA senior analyst began releasing massive numbers of classified files about secret U.S. government programs to gather user data from all manner of electronic communication sources, constituting an invasion of privacy in the name of national security of unprecedented scope.

So we are there when Snowden, sitting on a rumpled bed at the Mira Hotel, prepares to start dropping the file bombs, gives explanatory interviews to Greenwald and The Guardian's intelligence correspondent Ewen MacAskill, watches the resulting media circus in the U.S. on television, meets with a local lawyer and plots his escape into refugee status.

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What's immediately striking is Snowden's even-keeled demeanor while discussing matters that will send officialdom in many countries into a frenzy. He seems calm, unstressed and pragmatic in regards his situation, even suggesting that if worse comes to worst and he finds no sanctuary, he'll cope with it: “If I get arrested, I get arrested,” he says, almost off-handedly. Despite the scale and scope of his revelations and actions, there is little tension or pressure in evidence; from a film perspective, it's even anti-dramatic.

Although the Berlin-based Poitras has stated that Citizenfour is the final entry in a post-9/11 trilogy of documentaries, following My Country, My Country, about the Iraq War, and The Oath, which deals with Guantanamo, it's hard to imagine that this will be her last word on this and related subjects, so numerous and significant are the issues the film raises. Officials are shown flat-out lying at hearings about the government prying into phone company and social media data, while Snowden and numerous others, the most articulate and plain-spoken of whom is retired longtime NSA technical director William Binney, enumerate the dangers clearly posed by unchecked government access to personal communications. Snowden flatly states that he could snoop into anyone's records, no matter what codes, passwords and encryptions might be in place, with no problem.

The small issue of Snowden's law-breaking is not really acknowledged or addressed until near the end, and even then it's essentially waved away by one man's technical legal explanation that treason is only supposed to apply to acts spying for a declared enemy in wartime. The widely held view that Snowden may have done a useful thing but must still own up to the illegality of his actions is never so much as mentioned.

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What Citizenfour offers in spades is a litany of acute political, ethical, technical and philosophical considerations articulated by an exceedingly smart real-life cast. Collectively, they introduce issues relating to corporate collusion with governments, self-censorship on the Internet, penetration of eavesdropping devices where you don't expect it (such as hotel telephones), the threat of secret police and the assumption that the U.S. can intercept any communication (the revelation of the tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's personal cellphone perhaps being Exhibit A). “It's supposed to be difficult to invade somebody's privacy,” one commentator philosophically argues, while another insists that, “Privacy is dead.” The global aspect of all of this is driven home by the fact that the film mainly takes place outside the U.S., in Hong Kong, London, Brazil, Berlin, Brussels and elsewhere.

When Snowden drops from sight, Greenwald returns to his base in Rio, where he presides over public informational forums and does more reporting, while Binney testifies further about the extent of spying. Snowden is briefly glimpsed cooking with his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, at his hideaway in Moscow, where he remains at the invitation of President Putin. Putting in a momentary appearance is the largely sidelined WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange, seen at his sanctuary at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London trying to arrange private plane transport for Snowden from Moscow to a receptive country, which never happened.

The final sequence is quite something and one is free to believe it or not. Greenwald goes to Moscow to see Snowden, who is flabbergasted to learn of the existence of a second inside source, a potential all-star whistleblower, and that the trail leads right to the White House door. Of course, such information must not be conveyed electronically, nor even verbalized, for fear of interception. Instead, Greenwald resorts to old-fashioned means, as he quickly scribbles what he knows on paper. The camera glimpses some of it, but then the sheets are torn into small pieces and gathered into a small pile on a table.

To be continued.

Production: Praxis Films
Director: Laura Poitras
Producers: Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy, Dirk Wilutzky
Executive producers: Steven Soderbergh, Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, David Menschel, Tom Quinn, Sheila Nevins
With: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Jacob Appelbaum, Ewen Macaskill, Jeremy Scahill
Directors of photography: Kirsten Johnson, Katy Scoggin, Trevor Paglen
Editor: Mathilde Bonnefoy

No rating, 114 minutes