VOD Movie Review: Citizenfour

Edward Snowden
Courtesy of RADiUS-TWC

Did the NSA have foreknowledge that Citizenfour was going to win the Oscar for Best Documentary? Um, probably …

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing actions about the mass indiscriminate and illegal invasions of privacy undertaken by the National Security Agency (“NSA”) continues to engender heated discussions as to whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. This tug-of-war was aptly illustrated during the 87th Academy Awards when, following the film’s win for Best Documentary, host Neil Patrick Harris uttered a derisive, “The subject of Citizenfour, Edward Snowden, could not be here tonight for some treason.”

Even John Kerry, that onetime anti-Vietnam War activist who is on record as praising whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg by stating: “His story reminds us that to fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship is to always ask questions and demand the truth” is the same Kerry who now excoriates Snowden (accused of the same three espionage charges as Ellsberg) by stating, “Edward Snowden is a coward, he is a traitor, and he has betrayed his country.”

Photo by Trevor Paglen

However, with Citizenfour‘s reveal of the NSA’s wholesale abuse of citizens’ privacy, how can Snowden’s decision to come forward be conceived of anything other than a brave, life-altering sacrifice? Mr. Harris, Mr. Kerry, did either of you bother to see the film?

Filmmaker Laura Poitras delivers a real-life spy thriller that fascinates from start to finish. In the opening on-screen narrative text, Poitras references her two earlier documentaries in which she explored America’s actions in the wake of 9/11 (2006’s My Country, My Country and 2010’s The Oath). It’s not meant as self-aggrandizement; rather, it sets up the fact that Citizenfour completes her post 9/11 trilogy. Moreover, it is due to those earlier films that Snowden decides to contact Poitras. Referring to her own victimization at the hands of Homeland Security and the NSA, Snowden’s text to her reads: “You asked why I picked you. I didn’t. You did.”

Continuing the onscreen text exchanges, we see encrypted data that ultimately reveals a few brief exchanges, accompanied by vocal communications between an unseen Poitras and a female voice calling itself “Citizenfour.” Even though we’re fairly sure that this woman’s voice represents Snowden, the suspense as to where and when the meetings between him and Poitras will occur is palpable.

Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong
Courtesy of RADiUS-TWC

The majority of the film takes place in a hotel room in Hong Kong. While Poitras is the unseen narrator behind the lens, Snowden is joined by interviewing journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, both reporters for UK’s The Guardian. From time to time, Poitras cuts to scenes with former NSA cryptologist William Binney, who details the birth of meta data, and the overarching rush to enact surveillance on everyone in the post 9/11 era. It is particularly shocking when the film shows footage of ex-NSA Chief Gen. Keith Alexander during congressional hearings, stating one bald-faced lie after another as he strenuously denies any invasive wrongdoings enacted by his agency.

But it is in the real-time, in-depth look at Snowden over an 8-day period of filmed conversations with Greenwald and MacAskill that gives Citizenfour its power. On the one hand, we witness Snowden’s cerebral brilliance, with his incisive observances on such topics as the nature of overreaching governmental power, the individual’s casual disregard of privacy by oversharing in social media, and the self-imposed curtailing of our own intellectual curiosity once we fully comprehend the extent to which Big Brother monitors our every Google search, our every conversation, our every text. On the other hand, we meet Snowden the man, his bravado about the possibility of arrest evaporating into a real fear that flashes across his face when he realizes that imprisonment may, in fact, become inevitable. Though carefully not exploitative, Poitras allows us a small peek into his devastation when he learns that his girlfriend, the person he spent a decade with, may be leaving him for good. It’s just a moment, subtle and quiet, but delivers quite a visceral punch.

Well-edited, smartly paced and beautifully realized, Citizenfour gives us a picture of a true patriot, a 29-year-old man with his life ahead of him, who left his well-paying career, his family and friends, trading in his comfortable life in Hawaii for unknown consequences. He is now living in exile in Russia.

In an August 2014 interview with Wired, Snowden offered this explanation: “And what I did was not to benefit myself. I didn’t ask for money. I gave this information back to public hands. The reason I did that was not to gain a label but to give you back a choice about the country you want to live in.”

Documentaries are our collective classroom. The lessons and the revelations they deliver teach us as much about the subject as ourselves. And if a particular documentary is extraordinarily strong, it may even effect change. Such as, for example, Citizenfour.


Rating on a scale of 5 very, very Big Brothers: 5

Release Date (ltd): October 24, 2014; HBO debut: February 23, 2015
Directed, filmed and produced by: Laura Poitras
Featuring: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, William Binney
Running Time: 114 minutes
Rating: R

Here’s the trailer:

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 500+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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