COURTESY PHOTOWhistleblower Edward Snowden is subject of “Citizenfour

‘Citizenfour’ a scintillating account of Snowden’s story

“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.

REVIEW

Citizenfour

Four stars

Starring: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, William Binney

Directed by: Laura Poitras

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

SF police shoot burglary suspect in Mission District

Man allegedly attacked officers before being shot in first on-duty SFPD shooting since June 2018

Not even heavy rain can stop the 25th annual SantaCon

Jolly, drunken fun event for Santas is the ‘least wonderful time of the year’ for many locals

Ronen says $100M service expansion is ‘going to fix’ SF’s mental health crisis

Compromise mental health plan has backing of mayor, full Board of Supervisors

Civil liberties lawyer files to take on Pelosi

A San Francisco-based civil liberties lawyer, progressive advocate, DJ and poet is… Continue reading

Supes sound off against bill increasing housing density near transit hubs

Senator Wiener calls resolution opposing SB 50 ‘little more than symbolic political theater’

Most Read