“We are building the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind.”
Whatever your thoughts on Edward Snowden, he is certainly one of the most influential figures in recent American history and perhaps the biggest name of the whistleblower movement. By leaking thousands of classified documents outlining the extensive NSA surveillance program, he has sparked an ongoing debate on the role of government surveillance in relation to issues of privacy and also national security. Citizenfour is the most notable documentary on the subject in recent years, and it tells the story of how these leaks came to be and the consequences that followed.
I didn’t see this movie when it dropped on HBO a couple years ago, so maybe I’m missing some of the impact, as I’m sure this inside look at Edward Snowden would have made a bigger splash while the incident was still fresh on everyone’s minds. I think the best part of this movie for me wasn’t the actual leaked information, which I have already read up on over the past few years, but the look at Snowden himself. The story of how Snowden made the move to leak this information is really fascinating, and I think the strongest part of the film is the very beginning in which Snowden uses cryptic messages to communicate with filmmaker Laura Poitras. You really see the paranoia this guy is facing, and it’s also a revealing look into both his personality and personal justifications for doing what he did. The scenes in the hotel where Snowden is so concerned over being found out, taking insanely precocious security measures, are some of the most revealing in the documentary.
Citizenfour won the Oscar for Best Documentary, and it’s certainly a worthy candidate. Documentaries are typically indicators of what a particular culture is like and what issues are surrounding it at some point in time. This tends to date them a bit, as Citizenfour is already a lot less interesting in 2016 since the Snowden hype has died down. The surveillance stuff is still interesting to revisit, and maybe someone who didn’t know much about Snowden or the programs he leaked would get a lot more out of this film. I didn’t really see a lot of insightful value in watching the movie in 2016, but I understand that’s primarily because it’s such a timely piece. I actually wouldn’t be surprised for this movie to get dropped from the 1001 List in the coming years, but I could be wrong. (Update 10/28: It did!) It certainly captures the hysteria and fantastic controversy over these issues that we saw played out in 2014, even if this discussion isn’t at the forefront of media attention anymore.
Laura Poitras makes some really cool choices in presenting the story. It has this mysterious tone, and you get the sense that Poitras, Snowden, and journalist Glenn Greenwald are at the center of one of the world’s biggest conspiracies. The interludes where Poitras shows her online text conversations with Snowden and Greenwald are suspenseful and revealing. Probably my favorite thing that I learned from Citizenfour was that it wasn’t just Snowden that was affected. Poitras and Greenwald had their personal lives greatly affected and had to take a great deal of precaution in order to tell this story. Poitras even had to edit the film in Germany for fear that the United States government would seize her footage.
If you’re an avid consumer of political news, you might not get a lot out of Citizenfour. There was no big climactic moment that opened my eyes to anything because I think Greenwald already opened our eyes with his reporting a few years ago. If you’re interested in learning more about the leaking process and getting a unique look at Snowden himself, Citizenfour might be an enjoyable watch. Honestly, I found myself bored for a lot of the runtime since Poitras made the (probably wise) decision to rehash a lot of major information for anyone less informed. As far as major technical flaws, Citizenfour doesn’t have many. Maybe it’s a bit too dramatic, giving up some of the honesty it could have conveyed. We feel like we’re watching this all play out instead of being right there along with the journalists on their journey (in the Spotlight style of storytelling.) Really, it’s just a movie about something important from a few years ago, and the “wow factor” is diminished. It’s a fine documentary, just not that eye-opening anymore, and that’s all I really have to say about it.
Films Left to Watch: 958