About forty-five minutes into Citizenfour I realised something truly significant and bold was happening. The immediacy of events slowly but forcefully made its way through the bog of technical mumbo jumbo, and it hit me that what I was watching was not a reenactment, or a fiction, but footage of real people putting real stakes on the line in acts of opulent selflessness. A lot of people around the world, including President Obama, might not have thought Edward Snowden to be a patriot, but in this riveting documentary he certainly comes across as one.
Citizenfour plays like Triumph Of The Will (1935) with a heartbeat. It is not content to just sit and observe (How could it?); it is actually about something. Imagine if Leni Riefenstahl hadn’t captured meaningless Nazi rallies and aggressive speeches but followed Oskar Schindler around the concentration camps and his factory as he smuggled Jews out of the country under Hitler’s nose. Imagine that kind of immediate power recorded on film.
In both films we witness events as they really happened in the history of the world, but Citizenfour ups the ante. In today’s era of civilian journalism it could be argued that anyone patrolling the streets has the power to capture a fleeting moment on their cell phones and immortalise it on the web. But how many of them are moments that address the issues of liberal freedom from the past, present, and most importantly the future?
What Laura Poitras tackles here is a contained event that sits on a hotbed of seething political and social issues. Its reach is not singular but timeless, and its hero — yes, I think he is a hero — could inspire a new comic book called Captain Courageous.
I admit I know little about Snowden and his case. His story was one you either knew or you didn’t. I, unfortunately, was too busy sourcing props and costumes for my final university film project to be concerned with that guy who was driving the US government round in circles. An act of ignorance on my part, sure, but following the news had never been high on my list of things to do.
We see Snowden confined to a hotel room in Hong Kong for eight days with Poitras and The Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, and occasionally with investigative journalist Ewan McAskill. They are all in Hong Kong by invite of Snowden, who chose Hong Kong presumably because she was far away from America’s incinerating torch.
What happens in this hotel room is key, what words are exchanged, what thoughts are expressed and, more vitally, suppressed. Snowden has appeared to these people willingly, with incriminating documents detailing the NSA’s tapping of civilian communications and personal information — illegal, invasive activities denied by all in charge. These documents, and his disclosure of their contents, will most likely spell the end for him.
To set the stage: Laura Poitras is a video journalist for The Washington Post. As text tells us, she made two earlier films post-9/11 — one about the Iraq War, the other about Guantanamo Bay — and was already working on material regarding illegal wiretapping by the US government when she started receiving anonymous encrypted emails from a character known only as Citizen Four.
Citizen Four, of course, turns out to be Snowden, a former NSA high-level employee. He encourages Poitras to rope Greenwald in, who is immediately and without question absorbed by this calm, sane, selfless man. As a journalist, Greenwald is a professional, but watch the way he regards Snowden, almost as if with reverence and admiration. You’d think Snowden was the Pope.
Greenwald approaches the issue with a lot of sensitivity, knowing perfectly well the kind of insidious spotlight Snowden is slowly drawing to himself. What is driving this harmless man to come forward with all this harmful information? Is he working for a cause greater than himself, or is he the cause? Can a person be so selfless as to risk incarceration for the betterment of humanity? In one of his interviews with Greenwald, Snowden intones, “I am more willing to risk imprisonment, or any other negative outcome personally, than I am to risk the curtailment of my intellectual freedom and that of those around me, whom I care for equally as I do for myself”. These are the words of a martyr, and martyrs’ number one rule, since the days of Christ, has always been to die for a cause bigger than oneself.
Poitras performs admirably as a director under harsh circumstances, but in this case, much of Citizenfour’s relentless thrill must be credited to the editor, Mathilde Bonnefoy, who arranges and composes ordinary scenes into sequences of propelling suspense. Much of the time spent in the hotel room is occupied by interviews and weary stares and Snowden typing away at his computer, and yet we are invigorated. Something is going on. Something big. It lurks beneath Snowden’s beguiling smile. He says he’s nervous, but not once do we see him flinch. He knows he’s on the verge of a gigantic breakthrough, and as we watch the media cover his story, desperately trying to uncover his identity, we know his ship is drifting straight for the fall. These moments play out like a great crime mystery.
There is, of course, a lot of technical lingo. Snowden refers to this programme and that, to systems administrators and surveillance drones, to metadata and cyberwarfare; at times it can all seem a bit overwhelming. I got lost in his words, and not in the charming way. But his story is universal. We get the main idea, and it carries us through. It makes us cheer. It makes all simple, despite murky waters.
I fear a lot of the terms and companies and organisations mentioned will zip over the heads of non-Americans as we try to grapple with what the NSA is and does, who the people we are seeing are, and what this all means for the global population, but there is a core lesson to be taken away. Our teacher is a guy named Edward Snowden. He put his freedom on the line to fight for ours, hoping to inspire others to do the same. Citizenfour is a very important movie because of this, because it shapes our understandings of governments and the strength of individual will. It is also tirelessly captivating in its immediacy, and one of the best I have seen.
Best Moment | All of it.
Worst Moment | Nope.