Laura Poitras’s insider account of the Edward Snowden affair is a gripping, paranoid character study.
I don’t want to get anyone’s door kicked in.
There is an almost visceral immediacy to Citizenfour, which aims to present the story of the story — how reporter Glenn Greenwald (among others) stunned the western world with the knowledge that the NSA has been, to put it bluntly, spying on us all. Filmmaker Laura Poitras, who was already on the government’s watch list after making searing documentaries about the War on Terror (including 2006’s My Country, My Country, which showed the occupation of Iraq from the Iraq point of view), was among the recipients of anonymous messages from someone claiming to have knowledge of a massive, worldwide wiretapping/data mining program.
Their initial meeting in Hong Kong is real cloak-and-dagger stuff — go a particular hotel lobby, look for a man playing a Rubik’s Cube, follow him to a different hotel — but their man of mystery turns out not to be a trained spy, but a 29-year-old, bespectacled, surprisingly calm systems analyst. You’re probably familiar with the rest — Snowden partners with Greenwald to release information on the U.S. Government’s surveillance practices, willingly marking himself as a traitor in order to shed light on a legitimately frightening problem. Under the WWI-era Espionage Act, as a team of lawyers discusses later, Snowden has absolutely no recourse or defense, so the clock is ticking to get the information out there before he has to disappear entirely. “Imagine your adversary is capable of 1 trillion queries per second,” Snowden says.
Citizenfour assumes we know this, and that we already have a notion of Snowden built up in our minds through months of media reports and cable news talking heads. (There is a quick refresher in footage of senate hearings, where national intelligence director James Clapper lied through his teeth.) But Poitras has the line on the story from beginning to ambiguous end, so it’s thrilling to watch Snowden, Greenwald, and Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill discuss process in real time: what is the right order to break these stories? What is the right timing? How can Greenwald get out in front of the smear campaign guaranteed to ensue once Snowden’s name gets out there?
I’m a sucker for documentaries showing historical events unfolding in real time (like last year’s brilliant The Square), and Citizenfour is no less gripping for lack of mobs and explosions. It transfers the furtive paranoia of Woodward meeting Watergate whistleblower Deep Throat to a sun-dappled Chinese hotel. There’s a deep uneasiness to the proceedings; Snowden lightly mocks Greenwald for not having a long enough root password on his laptop, and when Snowden enters his own, he hides himself under a hotel blanket so his keystrokes can’t be seen by any prying eyes. At one point, the fire alarm blares, and the Snowden and the reporters look at each other in awkward silence: have they been found? Should they leave? Is it real? (It turns out to just be a routine test, but that doesn’t make anyone feel any better.)
Through it all, Snowden shows himself to be knowledgeable, articulate, and dedicated to his mission whatever the cost. He admits he’s throwing away his family, friends, and comforts — he never cops to treason, but he doesn’t really have to; the law is the law. But he’s also still a regular guy, who wonders aloud whether he should give himself a closer shave for the cameras, and gets exasperated when the international press IDs his room and bombards him with calls. One man’s traitor is another man’s hero, and Poitras’s ever-present camera, holding on long closeups of his face, gives Snowden an air of martyrdom. It could happen to you, she seems to be saying.
A one-sided documentary? Sure. Even President Obama isn’t immune to the power of juxtaposition, giving a weak-tea speech calling for a lawful, thorough investigation into these issues — which one imagines would be incredibly slow and not change much of anything (as the NSA loves its programs too much to lose them). Poitras also brings us to to more far-flung locations than a Bourne film (Hong Kong, Berlin, Rio, and Russia, with a cameo from Julian Assange), laying the groundwork for what Oliver Stone, no stranger to conspiracies, will hopefully make into a gripping feature film. But that feeling of coiled dread — and that low drone on the film’s soundtrack — never goes away. Another neat technique Poitras employs, showing their encrypted chats, is straight out of the Michael Mann playbook. Citizenfour is less a thundering polemic than a slow-burning horror film.
After Snowden has moved continents (and after a two-month stay in a Moscow airport), Greenwald and Poitras meet with him one more time. Some new revelations have come to light, corroborated by another inside source. Greenwald slides a piece of paper across the table for Snowden to read. “Holy s–t,” he exclaims. I don’t know about you, but if something elicits that kind of response from Ed Snowden, I’m terrified to see the sequel.