Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s documentary about Edward Snowden, premiered to a sold-out audience at the New York Film Festival on October 10. The film was not originally part of the festival lineup, its inclusion only announced less than a month prior. The premiere understandably generated an overwhelming amount of anticipation, promising a personal look at the enigmatic figure who leaked a trove of classified NSA documents that expose a horrifyingly massive, US-run surveillance program directed at both US and global citizens and world leaders. Snowden is currently wanted by the US government for treason and continues to live in Russia, which has granted him temporary asylum.
Citizenfour is the third film in Poitras’s documentary trilogy about the post–September 11th world. My Country, My Country (2005) captures the chaos in Iraq leading up to that year’s elections, focusing on a Sunni doctor who’s running for political office. The Oath (2010), one of the most underrated documentaries of the past five years, follows Abu Jandal, a winningly charismatic Yemeni taxi driver who also happens to be a former member of Al Qaeda, and for a time Osama Bin Laden’s bodyguard. The Oath and Citizenfour are philosophically two-of-a-kind — meditations on individual responsibility amid fundamentalism, violence, and abuses of power. Both present nuanced portraits of characters whose political sympathies do not split along traditional lines. George Packer’s profile of Poitras in The New Yorker recounts the reaction of Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, to The Oath: “I’m trying to get people out of Guantánamo, and your film is not helpful.” Snowden too is an enigmatic character, certainly not the darling of all liberals, and has been aggressively prosecuted by the Obama administration; Michael Cieply, writing in the New York Times, queried how Harvey Weinstein, Jeff Skoll, and Richard Plepler, heads of companies that backed Citizenfour, could reconcile funding the film and financially supporting Obama.
Although often described as such, Citizenfour is not truly a piece of political reporting. After all, the revelations of NSA spying detailed in the film happened months before. Nor is the film, although it perhaps aspires to be, much of a deep character study. We learn little of the complexity of Snowden’s psyche — he presents a clear, consistent motive of political principle to his interviewers, and reveals little about himself beyond his concern with the questions at hand. Rather, what Citizenfour captures is the nail-biting suspense of a short period of time in which a man sacrifices himself for his political ideals.
The film begins with Poitras narrating her first email communications with Snowden, code-named “citizen four.” Snowden contacts Poitras cold, explaining that he chose her because of her personal experience with surveillance. (As a 2012 Salon article by Glenn Greenwald details, Poitras has been frequently detained and questioned when re-entering the US, likely because of her earlier films.) Snowden makes clear to Poitras that he plans to abscond with a vast amount of classified information, and he asks her to bring on Greenwald as a partner. (Snowden had previously contacted Greenwald; according to the film, their relationship had been discontinued because they were unable to establish a secure connection.) Poitras and Greenwald arrange to meet Snowden in Hong Kong. The bulk of the film occurs during that time, when Poitras, Greenwald, the Guardian’s Ewan MacAskill, and Snowden congregate inside a Hong Kong hotel room, in the days after Snowden has made an irreversible decision.
Citizenfour’s narrative is driven by intimate shots of Snowden. The mood is tense, and our hero is paranoid. Or is he? He repeatedly teases Greenwald about a lack of computer security measures, which he immediately fixes. He questions the veracity of a sudden, repeat fire alarm. (It turns out to be a test.) He realizes he’s forgotten to unplug the hotel phone; it could be used as a clandestine surveillance microphone. He puts a blanket over his head while typing, since passwords can be discovered through hand movements. Snowden has suddenly stepped out of one life and into another; it seems he is nervously learning how to play whistleblower. In a later scene, before he must leave the hotel, he opens a large black umbrella, holding it low to cover his face. Realizing he looks absurd, a cliché of an undercover spy, he ditches the umbrella. And in one of the film’s most emotional moments, Snowden emails with his girlfriend, who has no idea where he is or what he’s in the process of doing; she tells him that police have questioned her.
The time in the hotel captures a series of world-changing events from an intimate perspective: Greenwald starts to publish; Snowden decides to reveal his identity, then leaves the hotel, seeking asylum. After his departure, Poitras cannot film him — the security risk is too high. The final section of the movie chronicles the media storm surrounding the leaks, before Poitras finally reunites with Snowden and Greenwald in Moscow; during this meeting Greenwald reveals the existence of a second NSA informant.
There has been very little critical discussion of Citizenfour in a cinematic context — its subject inherently dominates. Citizenfour is a competent film, but no great artistic accomplishment. Given that most of the story occurs in a hotel room, visually there isn’t much to work with. The depth of characters is also limited; the focus is on the revelations at hand. And so, perhaps reasonably, much of the discussion around the film has become a debate about Snowden himself, his motives and character.
Fred Kaplan’s review in Slate paints Snowden as ultimately irresponsible, berating him for the amount of classified information he gave to Poitras and Greenwald: “What kind of whistleblower hands over a digital library of extremely classified documents on a vast range of topics, shrugs his shoulders, and says, I’ll let you decide what to publish?” Kaplan criticizes the film for portraying Snowden as ultimately conscientious. Even Packer’s New Yorker piece, generally sympathetic towards Snowden, notes that Citizenfour leaves elements of his motives unearthed: “Snowden went to great trouble over a long period to amass the astonishing quantity of secrets that he passed on to Poitras and Greenwald—including taking a private-contractor position solely with the aim of downloading N.S.A. files. None of this is revealed under Greenwald’s questioning.”
What may actually bother these critics most is Snowden’s singled-mindedness. He’s so sure of his convictions and in possession of such a clear sense of personal responsibility that he colors a shocking number of people in a comparatively dark moral light: anyone with security privileges at the NSA; many members of congress; the President; anyone else who was aware of the NSA’s data collection programs and did nothing. Citizenfour shows that Snowden has absolute faith in his own principles. He repeats that he doesn’t want to become the focus of attention — the leaks themselves should have the news spotlight. He explains the information he has, but makes clear that he wants Poitras and Greenwald to decide what to reveal and when to publish it. Generally, he comes across as smart, extremely principled, and unassuming. It’s a convincing portrait.
The US government has a fairly robust history of spying on its citizens. The FBI sent threatening letters to Martin Luther King, Jr. and watched on John Lennon. Under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, a program called Cointelpro monitored everyone whose political work the agency considered suspect, from members of college black student associations to those with possible Communist sympathies. But it’s crucial to remember that this history of surveillance involved following people, bugging apartments and phones — work that had to be done by humans. What is perhaps most disturbing about Snowden’s NSA revelations is the impersonality, magnitude, and infallibility of our contemporary government’s practices. No longer does one person listen in on another’s phone line; rather, data centers quietly spy on everyone. At the premiere, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were all being monitored; Poitras, Greenwald, journalist Jeremy Scahill, and members of Snowden’s family were all present. The event seemed a likely target for enhanced NSA data flagging. While US society is still open enough that this type of film can premiere at a major festival, we now know that we live in a surveillance state. Whatever one believes Snowden’s motives to be, the information he exposed must radically change the way each of us thinks about, understands, and enacts our relationship to democracy in this country. And for that, we should be thankful.