Maybe the most shocking aspect of last year’s disclosure to news organizations that the National Security Agency had been illegally spying on countless citizens, was that the man at the center of the leak was an obscure functionary. For the amount of controversy and international attention he attracted a year ago, Edward Snowden lacks the flamboyance of fellow whistleblower Julian Assange, and seems genuinely more concerned with getting the word out than fortifying his own celebrity. So one of the pleasures of “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras‘ new documentary about Snowden, is what a reserved, principled figure he is.
Poitras is a documentary filmmaker whose 2006 “My Country, My Country” was nominated for an Academy Award and who was contacted out of the blue by Snowden (the movie’s title refers to his anonymous online handle). The two developed a friendship and eventually met up in Hong Kong along with journalist Glenn Greenwald, who reported on Snowden’s revelations for British newspaper The Guardian. The story Snowden tells is the stuff of ’70s conspiracy movies, yet is very real.
Snowden, at the time just 29-years-old, already had an impressive, if somewhat indirect, background in intelligence, having worked as a systems administrator for the CIA before moving into the private sector, though still contributing to governmental projects. Right before he came forward publicly, Snowden worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, a consulting firm that, at the time, was working on an NSA outpost in Hawaii. Finally, after digesting the scope and severity of the government’s global surveillance program, he decided to reach out to Poitras and Greenwald. “Citizenfour” is made up of much of the footage that she shot with Snowden in a luxury hotel in Hong Kong in 2013, where he took refuge after the leak. With each revelation, this nice, boring guy from North Carolina becomes more paranoid, skittish, and melancholy. He has been discombobulated on a molecular level.
This is a movie primarily concerned with numbers and the way that information is fed, processed, and acted upon. But it plays like the greatest paranoid thriller since “All the President’s Men.” Poitras knows how to keep the narrative moving at a swift pace, how to convey all of the secrets Snowden disclosed in a quick and clear manner, and more than that, she understands that just watching Snowden and hearing his words are enough to carry much of the movie. While you get the sense that he’s passionate, you sense that blowing the whistle the way he did seemed like the most logical choice.
Poitras knows how to maintain that palpable atmosphere of dread. She dips into a lecture being given by Jacob Appelbaum, one of the Occupy Wall Street principals, about security. Elsewhere, whistleblower and former NSA bigwig William Binney makes his way through the halls of Congress demanding reform. Binney worked for the NSA for three decades, but left after feeling that the surveillance programs were overstepping their bounds. Today he’s a colorful freedom fighter and raconteur, and offers one possible scenario for the kind of life Snowden could live one day. This is the climate that Snowden existed in and in which he chose to unleash this information. As Snowden puts it, even in this environment, the spying program is “the greatest weapon of oppression.”
But even more telling was the Obama administration’s response to Snowden. Instead of trying to figure out how this blatant abuse of power could have continued to mushroom (and by all accounts the surveillance introduced by George W. Bush in the foggy days following 9/11 only got worse under Obama), the U.S. Department of Justice painted a target on Snowden’s back and labeled him a traitor. There is chilling footage that Poitras took of a facility in Bluffdale, Utah, which functions as a kind of depository for all of the information that the various programs collect (everything from computer keystrokes to photos taken on a cell phone to conversations and emails). It’s the haunting stuff of Orwellian nightmares, unfolding right in front of us.
“Citizenfour” shows that Snowden, the guy with the guts to expose these shadowy practices, is the one who pays the biggest price. The giant vault of secrets goes up in Utah, senators lie and congressmen squirm, and nobody is held accountable. Nobody, that is, except Snowden. At the beginning of the movie, he’s somewhat optimistic that his secrets will make a difference. He’s a reedy dweeb clutching a Cory Doctorow novel and referencing Nine Inch Nails (who, it should be noted, repay the favor by contributing the closing credits song). By the end of this singularly powerful, incendiary movie, he’s a man hunted to the ends of the earth (Russia, to be precise). Poitras shoots him through the window of his hideout, making pasta with his longtime girlfriend (whom he left abruptly after his NSA leaks went public, and whose status was unknown until this film; it’s a surprising moment). Outside, the snow blows in twirling gusts. Someone, probably, is listening in. [A]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 New York Film Festival.