Citizenfour is less of a nuts and bolts documentary and more of a political thriller. It’s edited for optimum suspense and even frames itself with protagonists. Those protagonists are American journalist Glenn Greenwald and controversial NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Snowden is now an notorious expatriate living in Russia hiding away from strict government action for his role in exposing the National Security Agency’s blatant exploitation of the general public’s privacy. Director Laura Poitras – a filmmaker who states at the beginning of this film that her probing documentaries about post 9/11 America have already placed her on watch by certain government entities – gets unrestricted access to Snowden here, and Citizenfour is a nerve-wrecking documentation of the meticulous preparation that Snowden and Greenwald take in revealing this shocking information to the American people. We are shown a brazen Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room giving out dangerous details to Greenwald about unlawful NSA activity but as the film progresses, we see Snowden grow more sheepish with reality that the pressure he knew would fall on his head is far more reaching than even he was prepared for. The film’s damning evidence of the American government’s illegal activity takes a back seat to the drama of Snowden and Greenwald, who themselves end up becoming the faces of another institution’s controversy.
The film’s knives are sharpest for an American government that uses the shield of National Security to allow the privacy of the general public to be pillaged and excavated. There is indeed even truer disdain for the Obama administration that campaigned against the Bush-era Patriot Act, only to further its power upon retaining office. The scars of the September 11th attacks are still fresh in the minds of a majority of American citizens, but after a decade of mourning we’ve come to realize how much our government has used that tragedy to gain unprecedented access to the corners of our life we hoped to keep private. The NSA has long moved past collecting this kind of information for the Fight Against Terrorism, and as Citizenfour supposes, a government which attacks the agency of its citizens can accumulate a scary amount of power that could spark ungodly consequences should someone decide to abuse it. This is the heart of Snowden’s plight. He predicts early in the film that once he goes on the record as the exposer, the media will manipulate the story from a regime breaking the law to a whistleblower breaking rank. This is exactly the sequence of events that ended up taking place, as Snowden was declared a target by the US government and painted as a man who jeopardized the safety of Americans by showing transparency within NSA’s protocol. By the end of Citizenfour, one may think that living in America is already more Orwellian than we even realized.
Poitras’ connection to Snowden begins when the filmmaker began receiving encrypted emails from an anonymous sender promising to show evidence of illegal activity, including spying and even perjury, within the NSA. The emails were signed “Citizenfour”. Charges of exploitation of the Patriot Act were already widespread, but this emailer ensured that the injustice was more vast than anyone had previously imagined. The emailer is forthright about the danger of their interaction, and is also quite aware that his actions will have consequences. From the beginning, this person is clear in that he is willing to be crucified by the media if that means getting the required message out to the public. This person ends up being Edward Snowden. Snowden asks Poitras to meet him at a hotel in Hong Kong, and to bring along known journalist and author Glen Greenwald. Along with investigative reporter from ‘The Guardian’, Ewen MacAskill, the men begin reviewing all of the information that Snowden has to give. Snowden is revealed to be an incredibly savvy person in regards to personal protection (almost to the point of paranoia, but who wouldn’t be paranoid in his position?). He often is giving out tips about encrypting internet messages, the creation of complex passwords and even disconnecting hotel phones that can be easily used as microphones to records conversations. Snowden was made so uncomfortable by the work he was doing for the NSA that he felt the need to speak out, but he is also afraid of the institution’s alarmingly rapid growth and sophistication – he wonders if there will be anybody in the near future who will have the knowledge and resources to keep themselves totally safe from their invasions of privacy.
Snowden’s story is well known now, but Citizenfour shows a strikingly different picture of the man who’s been branded as a betrayer of trusts. There are many who support Snowden’s actions, but in the States, his prophecy of becoming villainized has mostly become true – the fact that he’s being protected under political asylum in Russia isn’t doing anything for his PR. What Poitras is able to show us in this film is a much purer portrait of an intelligent, idealistic man who may have been a bit naive in regards to the response to his speaking out. Snowden’s slow evolution throughout the film from a confident whistleblower to a man frightened for the punishment of future whistleblowers is astonishing, showing a troubling example of the American government’s ability to intimidate without any actual face-to-face intimidation. Snowden is much more thoughtful than even the most staunch defenders of civil liberties would think. He does not have the pompous self-promotion of Julian Assange (who makes an appearance late in the film as the man helping to grant Snowden asylum in Russia), and seems to be perpetually conflicted between exposing wrongdoings and saying nothing and keeping his loved ones safe. He may have been wrong about how he would respond to the consequences, but he was aware that strict consequences were coming. There’s something sacrificial in his behavior.
In a lot of ways, Snowden doesn’t make for a perfect martyr. He speaks openly in early parts of the film of being totally unafraid of prison, but now sits in the safe hands of America’s biggest rival in hopes of avoiding the felony charges that wait for him at home. And Citizenfour does a good enough job of separating the goodness of Snowden’s deeds and the goodness of Snowden himself. Much like Assange, it’s very easy to use the misdeeds of Snowden against him, but his message is much more essential – and this is where the brilliance of Poitras’ film really begins to show itself. Citizenfour uses Snowden as the protagonist it needs to tell a riveting story, but does not make him a hero. Even Greenwald, who ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on this story, isn’t made to be a man of glorious integrity fueled by the need of human rights – the sparkle in his eye for getting the scoop seems to always shine brighter than the uncovering of injustice. It makes sense that the film’s end credits showcases Snowden and Greenwald’s names as if they were actors in a cast and not subjects in a documentary. A lot of what’s in Citizenfour feels fictional, like the many American films made about the human rights violations in countries not named America. But this is clearly not fiction, and this scandal is not that old. It’s fun to imagine the thrilling details of American conspiracy, and Citizenfour plays well with that audience curiosity – but the thudding climax of the film is that this is our reality. Citizenfour is just one of many narratives created around the phenomenon of Snowden, but it may be the longest lasting – the one that finally convinces us that there is more to the story than the man at the front of it.
Directed by Laura Poitras