Overview: In June 2013, journalists Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and Ewen MacAskill met with Edward Snowden in a hotel in Hong Kong to carry out his planned leak of classified documents, and Poitras filmed the entire affair. Radius-TWC; 2014; Rated R; 114 Minutes
In the Making: Edward Snowden’s leak of classified NSA documents took place less than eighteen months ago, but before seeing Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, I would have sworn it was much longer. American life since Snowden’s leak has been significantly defined by it, so it feels as though it can’t possibly have happened just last year. That moment is already an important piece of American history, and as such, Citizenfour is without much precedent. There was a little amateur footage of JFK’s assassination and a lot of amateur footage of the 9/11 attacks, but for obvious reasons professional documentarians couldn’t deliberately capture them (though it did happen accidentally, as seen in the 2002 documentary 9/11). The existence of Citizenfour, as a historical document, is invaluable.
Patriot Acts: In other words, it would have been excused for not being terribly cinematic, but Poitras clearly isn’t interested in half-assing anything. This is a chilling film, and not because the raw material is inherently so. It takes a little while for the film to get to Snowden — Poitras had started making a film about American surveillance before Snowden contacted her, and the first half-hour of Citizenfour is made up of that material— and we see his paranoia very quickly. Though he seems like a relatively calm guy, he covers himself with a blanket while he uses his laptop because he’s worried that he’s being watched. This initially seems silly, but Poitras spends the rest of the film making you just as anxious as Snowden is. She constantly subverts the media’s reduction of him to either a hero or a traitor. In one scene, she focuses on Snowden struggling to make his hair look nice, and cable news talks about him in the background. I wouldn’t call it “humanizing,” per se, but it removes the mythic status that constant media coverage would give to anyone. This is just some guy. And if he’s so nervous about the government, maybe we all should be, too.
Laugh Tracks: There was more audience laughter during this film than I expected. It’s not a funny film, but it’s hard to argue that the laughs were inappropriate. Mostly, they were reactions to the sheer audacity of the film’s accusations, and they were always directed at on-screen text, such as chat logs between Poitras and Snowden. In one chat, Poitras asks Snowden if it’s possible that German Chancellor Angela Merkel (this was when it came out that the U.S. was spying on her) wasn’t given a codename by the people watching her. Snowden responds, “It’s possible. Codenames are given to assets, not targets.” This got more than a few chuckles but not because it’s funny. It’s so outlandish to suggest something like this that at first you can’t help but laugh. I’ve forgotten the speaker, but Poitras includes footage of a younger man saying that he doesn’t want his generation to be so unsurprised by news of government misconduct, because that cynicism doesn’t fix the problem. I don’t think anyone in my theater was surprised by Citizenfour’s revelations, but Poitras can’t let that stand. In the final scene, Greenwald and Snowden discuss information that presumably will be leaked soon. We don’t hear what it is, because Greenwald writes everything down in case of bugs, but Poitras does show us that Snowden is bewildered to hear it, and we see a flowchart that ends in a box labeled “POTUS.” There was no laughter in response to this, because despite Poitras hinting towards a shocking revelation, no one found it that hard to believe. That lack of laughter is Citizenfour’s legacy. People will look back on that scene and think, “Wow, back in 2014, it was considered shocking that the President could be part of such massive crimes against Americans.” This film is designed to be looked at with hindsight; we don’t need to be taught this information today because we’re living it. That said, Citizenfour is as good a summation of American life in 2014 as you could ask for, capturing all our anxious energy just as it’s about to explode.
Wrap-Up: Citizenfour turns a vital historical document into a tense cinematic experience.