“This will not be a waste of your time,” wrote an anonymous man in an encrypted email to documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. The person sending her the message had liked her prior documentaries, My Country, My Country and The Oath, about the state of post-9/11 American life, and could trust that Poitras would keep his messages confidential and not reveal them to the authorities – especially since the director had been placed on a watch list as a result of her earlier, critical films. The person sending her messages also turns out to be a soft-spoken twenty-something from a North Carolina military family named Edward Snowden. Although he prefers it if you call him Ed.
Snowden signed these emails Citizenfour, which is also the title of Poitras’s new documentary. Many years from now, Americans curious enough to peer back to this era of paranoia will be thrilled to have a film like Citizenfour available, just as modern audiences can watch All the President’s Men to see the journalistic pursuit that broke open the Watergate scandal.
Snowden’s claims about the NSA and its mass surveillance dating mining scandal program known as PRISM shook the world in the summer of 2013, although he remains something of a global enigma. In the middle hour of the documentary, Poitras meets up with the NSA contractor-cum-whistleblower in a luxurious Hong Kong hotel, arriving with a camera. Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, the man who first published Snowden’s admissions to the world, is in the room as well. When Snowden starts talking, he swallows before admitting that he is nervous. “I don’t have any experience with the media,” he says, with a shy grin.
Citizenfour is kind of an awkward merging of two different films with a similar theme. There is the taped portion of Snowden revealing to Greenwald and another Guardian reporter his intelligence about the curtailed freedom and privacy that Americans face unwittingly. Then, there is the context of the film to support his claims: court cases, debates on CNN, speeches from congress and the president both before and after his allegations went public. Poitras’s film has nary a talking head to explain what is happening; instead, you have to connect the dots between the public footage and the private interview with Snowden to get a glimpse at the bigger picture. Citizenfour cannot help but feels less urgent when Snowden is off-camera, but the aftermath of his revelations add a necessary context to the film.
Poitras opens the film in a long, darkened tunnel with no foreseeable exit light, an apt metaphor for a doc focusing on a man whose life is shrouded by dark secrets who really just wants to enlighten the world about some important facts about privacy and security. (It is no coincidence that the tunnel ends in Hong Kong, where Poitras met Snowden and recorded their interviews.) Underneath a distant, alien score, which sounds like something out of a Trent Reznor-Atticus Ross collaboration, one’s feelings toward the subject matter become steadily uneasier as Snowden brings more information to light.
Snowden speaks with candor, intelligence and a bit of youthful awkwardness. He explains that while he is in contact with his parents and girlfriend, they do not know where he is. His employer thinks that he is home sick. The only glimpse we see of these sessions comes from Poitras’ camera. When Snowden’s girlfriend calls him, concerned of suspicious looking vans by his home, we register both the curiosity and fear on his face. A fire alarm blares over one of the interviews, which gives us the eerie feeling that the alarms were planned. (It turns out it is just a safety test, although one never knows if Big Brother is watching.) As news reports of Snowden’s allegations are the top story on CNN, Poitras moves from filming the TV to Snowden trimming his beard and putting on a disguise.
Citizenfour is more a work of craftily conducted journalism than a work of art. Poitras even reprints Snowden’s email messages onscreen and repeats them via voice-over. She cites her sources and does the research to back up his claims, even showing the congressional hearings where two top-tier NSA members denied their involvement in spying and collecting the data of ordinary Americans. If you have not seen those clips before, it is chilling. Even if you have, there is still something unnerving about those bold-faced lies, especially with the intense directness of the witness’s voices juxtaposed with Snowden’s calmer, more fidgety conversations.
He is far from the confident iconoclast that some judged him to be. He does not boast the ego as, say, Julian Assange (who makes a cameo appearance here). Snowden comes off as a man with pure intentions trying to figure out whether the Espionage Act will protect him, since his whistleblowing is in the public interest. He does not seem troubled by his comments, perhaps not realizing the firestorm they would cause or the treatment he would later receive. However, he seems like little more than a decent man with noble intentions, far from the treasonous tyrant some caricature him as. Snowden’s affable normality comes off as his most unique, compelling characteristic.
At one point in Citizenfour, Snowden approaches the window of his room, veiled off with a curtain. In one of the only times Poitras clearly filmed something in the hotel room from a subjective position, she takes his point of view and films the moment as if we are looking out onto Hong Kong, but with the veil blocking our view of the city. As the charlatan from The Wizard of Oz said, “Don’t look at the man behind the curtain.” Snowden has been hiding behind a veil. Now that the public will get to look behind the proverbial curtain, the irony is that he now has to go into hiding even further.
Beyond Snowden’s part, some may grouse that limiting the film to hearings, court cases and news stories that are already in the public record means that there is little to take away from Citizenfour. Others may herald Poitras for letting the record speak for itself, as objectively as possible. Both sides have a point. Today’s audiences who see Citizenfour will likely not learn too much more about the NSA scandal, but this is an invaluable document that gets right to the root of an imperative moment in American history. Right now, the documentary is an intriguing, if sometimes stodgy reframing of familiar news. Decades from now, for audiences who do not remember the current zeitgeist, Citizenfour will be riveting, and not at all a waste of time.