Citizenfour (2014): Directed by Laura Poitras. Starring: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Jacob Appelbaum, Ewen MacAskill, and (very briefly) Julian Assange. Running Time: 114 minutes.
By a twist of circumstance, I had the chance to see Citizenfour the day after I saw The Imitation Game, and I was immediately struck by the parallels between the subject matter of the two movies. Both ultimately conclude that the key to real power in this world is not, in the end, manpower, economic growth, or military strength, but information. This can be and is heavily debated, obviously, but the cases presented here are overwhelmingly strong. Have access to enough information, and you can win a war against all odds. Have the means to obtain enough information, and your ability to rule, and even to oppress, can not only go unchallenged, but practically unnoticed. Seeing both back-to-back was also a powerful reminder of the ripple effects of key events throughout history. Even if its original purpose was to defeat Nazism, it cannot be forgotten that the modern means of spying revealed to such a stark degree by the Snowden documents would be impossible without the prevalence of digital communication, whose genesis can be found in the wartime work of Alan Turing. The one would not, and indeed cannot, exist without the other.
Citizenfour is, hands-down, the most important film, documentary or otherwise, to come out this year. Maybe in years. It is literally watching history in the making, consisting in large part of on-the-spot recording of Edward Snowden’s first meetings with the journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill (both working for The Guardian at the time). These scenes alone will be primary source materials for years for anyone studying this particular aspect of early 21st-century history. The issues and questions it raises regarding whether and how the relationship between governing and governed has been fundamentally altered by modern digital communication are ones that my generation especially ignores at its own peril, because events that already spin by us at top speed are only going to get faster. It is also one of the straight-up best films of 2014, documentary or otherwise. It can and should provoke endless debate and discussion over what Poitras chose to focus on, what she left out, how she portrays Snowden, and how bias- hers, Snowden’s, and ours- affect how each of us interprets the film’s key moments, and on top of all that, it’s quite simply an incredibly slick and expertly crafted thriller. The use of closeups on Snowden, Greenwald, and MacAskill in that fateful hotel room in Hong Kong, smooth editing and establishing shots between scenes, and the eerie undercurrent of the film’s soundtrack can easily make one forget that we are watching actual historical events unfold in real-time, and not a mashup of the Bourne Trilogy and a David Fincher film (the comparison to Fincher is not without merit- the tracks heard were taken from a Nine Inch Nails album written by Trent Raznor and Atticus Ross).
The movie informs us right at the beginning that the film was already in the process of being made when Poitras was first contacted by Snowden. One of the original main players in the film, and who is still in the final cut, is another NSA whistleblower named William Binney, who actually had his house raided in response to his leaks. Obviously, the contact with Snowden and everything that followed greatly changed the nature and scope of the final product, which moved from focusing on a general look at post-9/11 government policy to focusing mostly on the revelations of the documents Snowden leaked and its immediate aftermath. The title is drawn from the codename that Snowden used in his first contacts, to be able to preserve his anonymity as long as possible. A few of their most important mails, all sent via encryption programs, are read out loud by Poitras as an effective way to set a scene; the standout is her reading the mail with instructions on how she and Greenwald were to find and identify him in a restaurant near his hotel in Hong Kong. Even without seeing what happened, we are transported into the world of a spy thriller, except this time around we know it actually happened, and just knowing that makes the viewer tense up. But then they are in the room, the camera is on, and the first conversations begin.
Poitras herself is only glimpsed briefly in a mirror, but you can feel her gaze through the camera, in how close she films people and how distantly she films everything else, creating the sense of a large, immutably cold world threatening to crush the individuals on-screen. Also of note is the use of the term “they” when describing the US government in general and the NSA in particular. The viewer is reminded acutely of how much of our modern world cannot actually be seen or felt or heard, and yet is still there, all around us. It is thrilling and unsettling all at once.
There are no new revelations contained in this film; everything discussed has been reported before. What is important to recall though, and what makes this movie such riveting viewing, is to be reminded of how the affair played out on a day-by-day basis, and to see everything placed in its larger context, which is of course the purpose of a documentary film. It is hard to say whether or not minds and hearts will be softened or hardened towards Snowden upon viewing this work. It is ironic or fitting (or both) that, despite Snowden’s insistence that he does not want the focus to be on him, but rather to be on the extent of civil rights abuses he is revealing, both the film and the broader discussion over the past year have centered on him regardless. Perhaps this was naiveté on his part, but in a way, in was also the inevitable result of any such individual reaction to a given situation. Humans will always seek a face to place on an event, era, or movement, because it humanizes everything for us, and makes it smaller and understandable. The Civil Rights movement was far more than MLK and Rosa Parks, but those are the figures we remember and honor the most. Nelson Mandela was one of many activists who suffered for their opposition to Apartheid. None of the others got a state funeral the likes of which the world has never seen. Such is the nature of man.
Or perhaps he really did (or does) have a sinister agenda. Maybe he really did just want the attention. The respect (and some might claim adulation) that Poitras and Greenwald have for him is clear- they take him at his word. Many others do, many do not, and some are indifferent, which is really the worst option of the three, because as the Snowden affair (and Snowden himself) makes clear, indifference is no longer an option in our world. We must, inevitably, be either active in shaping it, or we surrender any claim to freedom and independence. My own views on the man and his actions have been mixed, but if he is concealing some malicious intent he hides it expertly when the cameras are rolling. Like it or not, in a world where large organizations can ever more easily oversee and control the means of communication at our disposal, we will continue to need people like Snowden, the occasional shock to the system that can tear through veils both known and unknown to allow us a glimpse of the truth.
I do not agree with every point the film implies, and there are sins of omission everywhere. That hardly matters though, at least in terms of whether or not I like and respect the film. It is, as another reviewer noted obliquely, “history written in lightning.” Its bite is all the sharper for how clearly and unapologetically it presents itself and Snowden as something big, something important, and something necessary. It is its biggest strength and its greatest weakness- perhaps Poitras wanted just as much as Snowden to shift focus onto the greater issues at stake, but could not resist the urge to turn him into another figure of civil rights history. The details on how she came into contact with him are scarce, and there is no mention that she and the others had already received the bulk of the documents he had collected. Remember, this was not like the Pentagon Papers, which had to be passed along by hand. Every bit of this is digital.
One point within the film invited a greater skepticism on my part. In a final scene between Greenwald and Snowden, they discuss new leaks by another whistleblower apparently inspired by Snowden’s example (something else he had hoped would follow from his public admittance of guilt). Included in the new leaks is a chilling number- 1.2 million- specifying the number of people on NSA “watch lists.” They scratch out the figures and info on sheets of paper, to avoid any eavesdropping, but a few are permitted to slide across the screen long enough to read, including a rough diagram of the line of decision-making regarding who is targeted by drone strikes. At the top is a small box that says “POTUS,” and as Greenwald begins to rip up each sheet systematically for disposal, the camera lingers for just a bit on the torn scrap with the top box, the 5 block letters staring out like an accusation.
Scratch the “like” part, it IS an accusation, and its intent is clear, but is it a fair one? To be sure, unless he takes a major shift over the next two years, the lack of action on Obama’s part to substantially reform or alter the post-9/11 intelligence systems he inherited from Bush outside of ending the torture program will go down as one of his greatest failures as President. However, when you look at the bulk of the Snowden documents, and compare them with what we already knew or guessed and also a few general laws of physics, the picture that comes out is less that of a top-down, tightly organized campaign of terror and oppression, and more that of a bloated bureaucratic system that’s a little too used to going unchallenged that it’s developed an attitude of, “Why do it? Because we can. I guess.” And like all such organizations (and the list of similar cases would be damn near endless), it instinctively seeks to protect and preserve its authority, be it actual or perceived, at all costs.
Not that that makes the current state of affairs any less dangerous or unacceptable. And the importance of these events and of the threats inherent in our current system has only grown more pressing and relevant with time. Just last week, a bill that would have ended the bulk data collection programs detailed in the leaks was defeated in the Senate by, what else, almost universal Republican opposition. Senator Rubio (R-Florida) even went so far as to call allegations that the program was being abused a “theoretical threat.” With the country now facing two entire years of Republican Senate control, it is to be severely doubted that any progress in this area will be made in the near future. This makes viewing Citizenfour even more of an imperative for each and every person, US citizen or otherwise, who is not content to just be handed a future they are unable to shape or effectively take part in. The future need not be bleak. All it takes is our active participation. And despite the controversy it will incite in viewers and the many points of contention that can be found within it, Citizenfour is a powerful call to attention and action. It is one of the few films of 2014 that truly is, in every sense of the word, a must-see.