BERLIN — A spirit of “fearlessness and fuck-you” drove NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to make his identity public, reporter Glenn Greenwald explains in Laura Poitras’s documentary, Citizenfour. The same rebellious spirit also ignites Poitras’s most recent film, as she joins the ranks of Snowden, Greenwald, and U.K. intelligence journalist Ewen MacAskill in holding the American government’s feet to the flames as they publically define the scope of its comprehensie programs for domestic surveillance.
While the drama of the film unfolds inside Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room as he decides which of the classified documents he acquired as an NSA contractor to release, we see also a sensitive and humanizing portrait of a man, one whose extreme misgivings about the possibilities for privacy and freedom inside a surveillance state cast our own fears into sharp relief. Poitras intersperses this footage with more personal moments of turmoil, such as his communication with girlfriend Lindsay Mills as she learns of his actions for the first time in the press, or his half-hearted attempt at a disguise before escaping to Russia.
Snowden insists throughout the film that he wants the media to focus on the contents of the documents he is leaking, rather than on him as a personality. But there can be no mistaking Poitras’s film as an intimate portrayal of the sacrifices Snowden must make in order to fight surveillance of almost incomprehensible scope. In this way, Poitras’s film brilliantly succeeds as a narrative counterpoint to the information-driven journalism that followed the leaks. Her film’s greatest contribution to the larger project of whistleblowing is its glimpse into a personal narrative of resistance, one filled with moments of fear and hubris, paranoia and selflessness.
Poitras includes additional narratives of resistance, such as hacktivist Jacob Appelbaum explaining the concept of metadata to members of Occupy Wall Street Movement and interviews with famed mathematician Walter Binney, who resigned from the NSA after realizing how the program he built for intercepting telecommunications, called Stellar Wind, had been used to spy wholesale on the American public. These scenes stand out from the complementary story Poitras weaves — from the Obama administration’s initial denial of the existence of domestic surveillance, followed by its calls for a legislative review of NSA programs, and finally to its insistence on charging Snowden.
Poitras herself is a mysterious and amorphous presence in the film. She opens the documentary by showing a written text on the screen that explains the role of Citizenfour as the third installment in her trilogy of films about post-9/11 America. Poitras is never seen, and rarely heard; she speaks only when reading aloud her email correspondences with Snowden, before their first meeting in Hong Kong and then again after his escape to Russia.
Yet the close quarters in which the film unfolds do not allow audiences to forget her presence so easily. In terse, documentary form, she melds her perspective with that of the viewer while maintaining a certain transparency about having been invited by Snowden himself to film the unfolding events. It it is by way of this invitation that Poitras’s film not only records Snowden and Greenwald’s decision-making processes, but also gives the former a platform to explain his motivations and his hope to inspire more whistleblowers. At one point, with a certain childlike stubbornness, he insists that if his coworkers wouldn’t criticize the NSA, then he would — and in so doing, that he hoped to create a cascade of political dissidence within the intelligence community.
In the final scene of the film, it becomes clear that Poitras participates in Snowden’s agenda to encourage widespread whistleblowing. She heavy-handedly concludes the documentary with Greenwald’s informing Snowden of another anonymous leak. The strength of this final scene is not its revelation of Snowden’s span of influence on other possible whistleblowers. Rather, its resonances are physical — they’re the sense of claustrophobia and paranoia that envelops spectators as they are positioned alongside Snowden for the last time in yet another sterile, isolated hotel room. Enabling audiences to participate in the cagelike confinement to which Snowden is now condemned is Poitras’s most powerful tool. Her film crackles with sparks of a chaotic dystopia as we experience, through Snowden’s most private moments, how it feels to live under extreme government surveillance, and therefore why the whistleblower could be motivated to risk his life to chart the sweeping magnitudes of the government’s limitations on personal freedom.