“Citizenfour” chronicles the Edward Snowden affair, with a focus on the discourse that occurred when filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald met with the now-famous whistle-blower in Hong Kong and received secret documents about massive, illegal government surveillance.
As both a nonfiction thriller and a 21st-century civics lesson, the movie triumphs.
Poitras describes the documentary as the final installment in a post-9/11 trilogy, and, like its predecessors (“My Country, My Country,” “The Oath”), it immerses viewers in the thick of something substantial and introduces people on the verge.
Eschewing talking heads, Poitras uses news footage, congressional testimony, title cards, and, especially, the Snowden interviews to detail who Snowden is, what he leaked, how he leaked it, and why the 29-year-old former National Security Agency contractor committed one of the most significant acts of whistle-blowing ever. Poitras begins in December 2012, when she receives her first email from Snowden. The communications continue.
In June 2013, Berlin-based Poitras and Brazil-based Greenwald meet with Snowden in Hong Kong. (He’ll be playing with a Rubik’s Cube, Snowden informs the pair, spy thriller style, detailing how they’ll recognize him).
Over eight days at the Mira hotel, with journalist Ewan MacAskill also involved, Snowden provides classified documents revealing immense NSA spying. He has told nobody about his plan to leak the data and worries about his girlfriend back in Hawaii. He intends to make his identity public, even though that could mean being arrested. The Snowden bombshells, first reported in news stories by Greenwald and MacAskill, make headlines worldwide.
After revealing his identity, Snowden meets with lawyers, goes underground, and surfaces in Russia.
A solid journalist and a smart filmmaker, Poitras doesn’t overtly judge Snowden. Rather, she lets a complex portrait emerge. Snowden comes across as rational, calm, sincere and beneath the surface, understandably suspicious. (In scenes that would be darkly comic if this movie were fiction, he submerges under a blanket or takes other protective measures to obstruct potential eavesdropping devices.)
In accordance with Snowden’s wishes and her own take on things, Poitras doesn’t let Snowden overshadow the bigger picture.
While supplying no new revelations, she assembles existing information into an alarming picture of the erosion of privacy. She supplements the fascinating Snowden with additional articulate voices. These include whistle-blower William Binney, who once designed NSA surveillance infrastructure, and journalist Jacob Applebaum, discussing digital-age complacency.
The multifaceted movie also touches on numerous related issues, from the Espionage Act to British government spying to programs that would appall Big Brother. In a closing passage both stirring and sad, Greenwald informs Snowden that another major whistle-blower has materialized. Worried about surveillance when discussing the explosive case, the men communicate the old-fashioned way – writing on paper and tearing it up after reading.
A shot of paper scraps speaks loads.
This is terrific documentary cinema.
Starring: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, William Binney
Directed by: Laura Poitras
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes