Only a few weeks after its existence was announced to the world, Laura Poitras’ “CITIZENFOUR” made its debut at the New York Film Festival on Friday night to thunderous applause and widespread speculation that the race for the Best Documentary Oscar has a serious new contender. Poitras, who shared a public service Pulitzer with Glenn Greenwald and Barton Gellman for breaking the Edward Snowden story, expands her initial video interview to feature length, exposing alarming information about the extent of U.S. intelligence activity — 1.2 million Americans are on the NSA’s watch list, including Poitras herself — and humanizing the oft-demonized Snowden. While Snowden can’t enter the U.S. without risking arrest, his parents attended the NYFF premiere, as did Poitras and Greenwald, who were rewarded with a lengthy standing ovation. By most accounts, “CITIZENFOUR” is short on breaking news, although it does reveal the presence of a second informant substantially higher up the chain of command than Snowden himself, but it seems clear Poitras, whose previous documentaries have been more humanist than journalistic, has taken a different tack on film than she did for the Guardian and the Washington Post, and that the movie and her reporting should be seen as complementary rather than continuous.
“CITIZENFOUR” opens in limited release on October 24.
Reviews of “CITIZENFOUR”
Spencer Ackerman, Guardian
Given the passions that the NSA disclosures have generated, it’s remarkable how tempered CitizenFour comes across. Reflecting a style Poitras seems to share with Snowden, it’s a quiet movie, its soundtrack a sinister digital throb, packed tight with questions about how we live freely in an unseen dragnet. One of its only boisterous moments comes when Snowden and Greenwald discuss the spirit animating both the reporting and Snowden’s decision to reveal himself. Greenwald describes it as “the fearlessness and the fuck-you.”
Eric Kohn, Indiewire
It’s hard not to imagine how a filmmaker less directly connected to Snowden might have explored his plight. Naturally, Poitras’ decision to step back and look at the bigger issues in play speaks to her own interests, but that itself deepens the movie’s ramifications. While her camera briefly glimpses Snowden in a moment of domesticity — cooking dinner with his girlfriend, who it turns out joined him in Russia last year — she generates the conflicting desire to learn more about her subject, tapping into the exact voyeuristic that Snowden’s activism counteracts. In essence, his message is embedded in the movie’s construction.
Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter
Given that the filmmaker was complicit with the subject in this top-secret project and was, in fact, contacted by him rather than the other way around, the point of view is a given. But no matter one’s personal stance about what Snowden did, this revelatory work is fascinating and thought-provoking, if, at the same time, oddly lacking in tension; unlike the provocations of Michael Moore or Oliver Stone, the temperature of this film is very cool. Its massive news value, which includes the bombshell suggestion that the chain of command for electronic spying goes all the way to the Oval Office, makes this one of the major and defining documentaries of recent times.
CITIZENFOUR is the most devastating thriller you’ll see. The absolute pinnacle of intrepid, brave journalism.
— John Oursler (@JMOursler) October 11, 2014
CITIZENFOUR: a home movie thriller portrait of history in action that is patient, tense, pieced-together, maddening and humane
— Robert Greene (@prewarcinema) October 11, 2014
Laura Poitras’ Ed Snowden doc CITIZENFOUR like being in the parking garage w/ Deep Throat. Staggering.
— Jake Coyle (@jakecoyleAP) October 11, 2014
Laura Poitras’ doc CITIZENFOUR is urgent & vital, packed w/ genuine risk. & a much different portrait of Edward Snowden than previously seen
— Mark Olsen (@IndieFocus) October 11, 2014
Edward Snowden doc Citizenfour is fantastic – powerful and intimate on a personal level and devastating on a governmental one #nyff
— Steven Zeitchik (@ZeitchikLAT) October 11, 2014
CITIZENFOUR is incendiary, packed with plenty to chew on in terms of cinematic merit and far-reaching implications. I feel exhausted. #NYFF
— Kate Erbland (@katerbland) October 11, 2014
I thought I knew the story from the inside. I was wrong. The film @citizenfour is so incredible. Astonishing.
— jeremy scahill (@jeremyscahill) October 11, 2014
CITIZENFOUR: Well this is a huge fucking deal. #NYFF
— david ehrlich (@davidehrlich) October 10, 2014