On “Citizenfour”

Last Thursday, I filed my last articles of 2016 for both jobs. Buzzer-beaters, to be sure, but I celebrated all the same by putting on a movie. There was nothing remotely festive on my flash drive, it was a bit too late to dig up alternatives, and the US Congress’ Intelligence Committee had just released its findings on Edward Snowden.

And that, friends, is how someone ends up watching Citizenfour for the holidays.

The last documentary in filmmaker Laura Poitras’ trilogy on post-9/11 America, Citizenfour drops you into the riveting, paranoiac story of how the world found out that it was being watched.

It’s you in a Hong Kong hotel room, conferring with Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, and Edward Snowden on the US’ mass surveillance systems. It’s you on the receiving end of encrypted (and cryptic) emails with instructions for downloading classified documents. It’s you in the middle of game-changing revelations about privacy and state power.

Or, no, that’s not entirely accurate: it’s Edward Snowden in the center, and for 144 minutes, you are an invested and equally vulnerable insider.

Make no mistake, this is an advocacy film. Citizenfour depicts Snowden as an intelligent and resolute NSA contractor who grew increasingly disillusioned with the agency’s ethically questionable surveillance programs. The leaks, Snowden says, were driven by patriotism and principle.

Poitras and Greenwald never question him beyond that, nor does the film look at the fallout of Snowden’s actions. Instead, Poitras drills down on the leaks’ implications: millions of civilians under watch without cause or consent, the deception that sustained that surveillance, the alarming lapses in ethics and judgment that entails.

Together, your insider position and Poitras’ choice of focus transform Citizenfour from simple documentary to real-life cyberpunk thriller.

A lot of questions have been raised about Snowden’s motives and methods, and the recent US Congressional report on his ties with Russian intelligence only muddles the picture further. Faith in Snowden, however, is essential to Citizenfour. It creates clarity.

That, in turn, lets the film have its high and immediate stakes: glossing over Snowden’s motives leaves him free to inhabit the role of intrepid cyberpunk protagonist, sending dispatches through the internet ether and living on a ticking clock set by sinister governments with motive and means to hunt him down. This is the chase that Citizenfour drops you into. The film’s narrow view indicates an understanding that looking over your shoulder is much easier when you aren’t asking questions about who’s beside you, too.

However, this gives the film an opacity that cuts a bit too close to the characteristic sins of its designated Big Bads. For a film about disclosure, Citizenfour holds back a lot.

Like I said earlier, the film doesn’t go into the extent or the fallout of Snowden’s leaks either. There’s no mention or analysis of these disclosures’ effects on the US and UK intelligence communities, of what other forces (and states) can do with the leaked information, of what consequences (if any) the ensuing shake-up will have for civilians. That cuts out even more essential context for the leaks that Citizenfour asks you to judge, even applaud.

Overall, it’s an absorbing and illuminating documentary, though one that asks for more trust than its choices arguably earn. It’s a quality that Citizenfour shares with both Snowden and the agencies he exposes. In that sense, at the very least, Poitras has crafted the perfect portrayal.