by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Laura Poitras
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 96% Certified Fresh
PLOT: Documentarian Laura Poitras captures the first week or so of Edward Snowden’s leaks to the press and the ensuing aftermath.
Over the last month or two, I have watched two stirring documentaries (Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Nostalgia for the Light) that redefined my idea of what a “good” documentary should be. Instead of being passive observers, those filmmakers documented what they saw and then commented on it with definite viewpoints and biases. Narration was used heavily. That’s not normally my favorite kind of documentary, but they were clear exceptions to my rule.
Tonight, I finished watching Citizenfour, a documentary about the first week or so of the Edward Snowden whistleblowing controversy. In direct opposition to the other documentaries I’ve seen recently, this film steadfastly avoids narration and simply presents the facts as they happen. As I was watching, I was simply absorbed in the storytelling, and after it was over, it occurred to me that this documentary captured something incredibly rare: the first few days of a national scandal, behind the scenes with the actual person blowing the whistle, BEFORE the story breaks. It was captivating.
But that sense of being a fly on the wall is nothing compared to the revelations Snowden made. If you’re politically-minded, Citizenfour is not just revelatory; it’s chilling. If one-tenth of what he discusses just in this film is true, the ramifications are vast. I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but the secret surveillance programs Snowden describes are exactly the kind of tools needed to create a dictatorship. When a government is using a program/algorithm/whatever that can follow your movements via phone calls, emails, e-payments, cell phones, laptops, etcetera…that’s a police state, empirically.
Snowden’s revelations are so mindblowing and voluminous that paranoia is the rule of the day. He contacted Poitras and a reporter from The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald, via encrypted emails and air-gapped laptops and arranges to meet them in a Hong Kong hotel. He makes a quick call to room service, then disconnects the phone. Why? Because, according to Snowden, the NSA has technology to listen in on conversations via a telephone handset, even when it’s hung up. Later, the hotel’s fire alarm starts going off sporadically. Snowden reconnects the phone and asks the front desk what’s going on, and he’s told it’s a scheduled test. “Nice of them to let us know,” Snowden says. Random event? Who knows? It’s a mark of how well the movie is constructed that seemingly innocuous events are transformed into, “They’re listening…”
The film follows the story, including the publication of the reports that eventually resulted in Snowden being forced to live in Russia for the better part of a year after his passport was revoked. We meet Julian Assange as he organizes Snowden’s legal strategy along with a squad of ACLU attorneys, all working pro bono.
The genius of the film is how it simply presents the facts and allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions. Is Snowden an attention-seeking charlatan? Or was the US government actively spying – spying – on American citizens without their knowledge? After a while, without really trying to, the movie takes on the air of one of those classic paranoid thrillers from the 1970s like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. At one point, Snowden logs into a laptop while covering his upper body with a blanket like a tent, presumably to make sure no one would be able to tell where he was by using the camera on his laptop. Or something.
(Admittedly, we only hear snippets of opposing viewpoints, one from then-President Obama where he agrees that Snowden created a much-needed discussion but declines to call him a patriot because of his methods.)
But surely some of this stuff is a little too sensational, right? The cynic in me wants to believe that’s the case. But consider: The material in Citizenfour was so sensitive at the time that the director, Laura Poitras, had to move to Berlin because she kept getting detained by border authorities when trying to re-enter the US. All the film footage was kept on encrypted drives to prevent access from…whomever. In fact, she edited the movie completely in Berlin so the FBI couldn’t serve a search warrant for the drives. Just in case.
At one point, Snowden and reporter Greenbaum carry on a conversation about another whistleblower, apparently inspired by Snowden, who seems about to release information about drone strikes and watch lists under Obama. They are careful to censor themselves by not saying certain words and phrases out loud. Instead, they write key phrases on pieces of paper and hand them back and forth. And then the paper is torn to pieces. Normally, this kind of thing would reek of paranoia, but considering what has come before, it seems perfectly reasonable, in light of what they’re discussing.
I gotta say…in all honesty, I may not be the best person to review this movie. I think it’s well-made and eye-opening and informative, but is it going to make me change my online or cell phone habits? Probably not. I’m in my 50s, and I enjoy the convenience of Amazon Prime and paying my bills online and using my phone to pay for things when shopping. Am I worried I’m being spied upon? I suppose I should be. But I’m not. I guess I’m willfully ignoring facts, at least the ones based on this documentary. I’m not saying I like it. I’m definitely against it. But is it enough to make me change my behavior? If I’m being honest, no. (And if I can’t be honest in an online review, where CAN I be honest?) But, bottom line, Citizenfour is one of the finest documentaries I’ve seen in recent years. If you’re running short of things to be outraged about, look no further.