Film Review – Citizenfour
Citizenfour‘s examination of Edward Snowden and the issue of government surveillance, while clearly on the side of more transparency from the government, allows that viewpoint to come across through a natural progression of seeing Snowden and the journalists who broke the story deal with the revelations. When the Edward Snowden story broke, the first thought I had was “Didn’t we already know this?” While the media and government went into overdrive, I wasn’t as intrigued by what was happening and I proceeded to ignore the story and never formed an opinion about what I thought of Snowden, if he was a hero or a traitor. After seeing this, I am more on his side, even as I acknowledge that director Laura Poitras has a clear viewpoint she is trying to get across about the danger of government surveillance.
Laura Poitras was one of the three journalists along with Glenn Greenwald and Ewen Macaskill who met Snowden when he revealed all he knew about the government surveillance program. The film takes us into how Snowden contacted these journalists and gives insight into some of the earlier concerns about the government surveillance programs and the way people were discussing them. We then move to when Snowden reveals himself to these journalists in Hong Kong. Poitras had the forethought to realize this was a momentous occasion and recorded the first interactions with Snowden as he explained what he was doing and why.
The style here is not the talking head of experts, but of an unveiling of the events, and how the journalists and Snowden react as the information is brought to light. There are scenes of the media reporting on the information, but it is always in reference to the lead characters watching the news. It is a singular view of how these individuals and those working with them react to the story.
This was different than many documentaries I have seen, with the filmmaker being directly connected with the subject matter. She has been with this story since it was revealed and therefore clearly is on Snowden’s side, yet the way she shows what is happening, still remains objective in that it is a great examination of what these people went through and why they hold the beliefs they do. As the story breaks, we see how Snowden deals with it, being very aware of the best ways to present this information and that letting himself be known to the world, made the story stronger. He takes care to look good and presentable as a handsome, competent man, yet tries to avoid being a media personality with the issues and simply says why he did this and avoids any other major discussion. This plays into him getting credible journalists to reveal the information in hopes that the issues it raises are the story and not himself.
No matter what your knowledge of Snowden is, it really doesn’t affect how you will be able to understand what is going on. Some of the technical jargon may go over your head (it did for me at least), but Poitras is extremely capable in setting up the issues in such a way as to give newcomers a good sense of where we are on government surveillance as an issue. Yet she makes it seem new to those who know more by giving us a front-row experience to everything that has happened. We have a sense, in real time, what the issues were for all of them and how they tried to make the story emerge to have maximum effect. We get instant message conversations and email exchanges that share their fears and hopes about what is happening as the story breaks, giving it a thriller atmosphere of the work they are doing.
Laura Poitras has won the Pulitzer prize for the work she and the other reporters have done on the Snowden leaks; she has also made other films dealing with the security apparatus that has sprung up after 9/11. There is an agenda here that cannot be ignored, but it doesn’t make it any less of a film. With this singular viewpoint we see the fallout of what the story has brought and the way it affects them as individuals (Glen Greenwald’s partner was detained at a British airport for hours) as well as those who share their concerns. It raises the questions in such a way to as make you want to know more by putting an interesting narrative story around all these events, making the impact even stronger.
This has been the documentary I have been waiting all year for; something that makes me think about an issue I didn’t know enough about, and filmed to make the issue informative without feeling like a lecture (even when there are a few lecture scenes). Laura Poirtras’s skill with direction is what enables this story to come alive in a way that even the twenty-four hour news cycle was unable to do. Whether you love what Snowden did or hate him as a traitor, this film lets us into not only why he did it, but the context of why the issue was so important that Snowden was willing to do this.