Midway through Laura Poitras’ great, infuriating documentary, Citizenfour, Edward Snowden sits in a Hong Kong hotel room, well into the eight-day June 2013 interview that would make history. This interview would reveal the full depravity of the United States’ surveillance into the private lives of its countrymen. Poitras and the two journalists she has entrusted with breaking Snowden’s story, have taken every precaution to guarantee that nobody knows where they are, who they are speaking with, and what they are talking about. Nonetheless, days into the interview Snowden remembers a chilling fact. The hotel phone, which sits hung up on the receiver next to him, could be used to listen in to their entire conversation. Surveillance technology has brought us so far that it we no longer need to use the telephone for someone to use it to spy on us. 40 years ago, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman’s surveillance expert in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation) tore his entire apartment to smithereens out of fear that someone could be using some object, any object, to record his private life. Ladies and gentlemen, we are now living in Harry’s world. Citizenfour is the best of this year’s numerous worthy documentaries, but that almost seems like faint praise for what it achieves. The facts that Laura Poitras presents with grim, journalistic fury are so alarming and disheartening that I almost feel bad carrying on a normal film review, which suddenly seems an especially insignificant thing. Part of me feels I should delve into a detailed analysis of the subject matter itself, but I fear I would not have much to add. Better that I stick to what I know. I know about movies and I know that everyone should see Citizenfour.
Citizenfour begins inside a tunnel, with traffic anonymously whooshing by. The voice of Laura Poitras reads messages from a mysterious informant who calls himself Citizenfour, and who will soon be revealed to be Edward Snowden. He has information. He knows the National Security Agency (“NSA”), where he has worked for many years, and our government as a whole, are embroiled in the most widespread invasion of human liberty in United States history. If Poitras and Snowden are to meet, she must confirm that she has an extremely strong password and that no one knows that they have communicated. Even then, they will have to undergo an elaborate set of steps to make sure that nobody can follow her. She should “involve Glenn Greenwald”, of The Guardian newspaper’s American division, to help break the story that Snowden will give to them. Poitras also involved Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian’s defense and intelligence correspondent. Greenwald, MacAskill, and Poitras herself would receive the 2013 Polk Award for Journalism for their efforts. Snowden asks that they place total blame on him in order to protect innocent parties and to safeguard the integrity of the story. Poitras must go to a Hong Kong hotel and look for a man solving a Rubik’s Cube and she must ask him about the hotel’s restaurant hours. He will tell her the restaurant is closed and pretend to escort her to a lounge on another floor. They will go from there to his hotel room, where he will allow them to capture riveting, dismaying, and historically groundbreaking footage of his controversial disclosure of National Security Agency secrets. The details will be myriad and sickening. As a former NSA analyst, Snowden learned that the United States was spying not only on potential terror suspects, but on every private citizen. We learn that drones are being used to spy on millions of American citizens, and that NSA workers can access footage of these private individuals from their desktops. And, where the NSA had purported to only collect data about the identities and times of private communications, Snowden reveals that they actually intercept the entire content of private conversations. Privacy has become almost entirely a thing of the past, and Citizenfour is a rigorous and almost unbearably immediate examination of its downfall. As directed by Laura Poitras, it is also a fascinating look at a brave and controversial man, a detailed look at the vast scope of how citizens are being monitored, and, in a way that seems almost perverse, an entertaining jolt of high-octane anxiety.
Prior to watching the film, I was unable to avoid hearing some criticism about its value as a piece of documentary filmmaking. The line went that Citizenfour was “merely” the year’s best documentary subject, not its best documentary. I personally feel that the value of a film’s subject often coincides with its content, but I concede that the two are not always one and the same. Suffice to say that point is moot because I think that Citizenfour is nigh unimpeachable on both fronts. Anyway, the nagging doubts seemed to be centered more on the film’s craftsmanship. It may be possible to argue that there were more kinetic documentaries this year than Citizenfour, which spends a substantial portion of its runtime in one hotel room, listening to a few men talk. Does this alleged shortage of kinetic verve make it less than perfect as a piece of cinema? Maybe, but then I may be the last person in the world to ask, as my most perfectly styled documentary of the year involved watching people ride a gondola in near silence. I will say that, if Citizenfour prioritizes its subject over its packaging, it is in keeping with Ed Snowden’s own wishes. He tells the three journalists that they must minimize his role in the story, and even obscure it completely for as long as they can. The media is quick to skim over dense, complex facts in favor of the glossier human interest angle. In the same way, it would have been easy for Poitras to make style the focus of her documentary, out of fear that viewers might have trouble unpacking the staggering amount of information it presents. Thankfully, Poitras has faith in her audience’s ability to parse through the meaning of it all. She lets the litany of cold facts and chilling implications largely speak for themselves. If we need to watch it again to catch it all, maybe we should. The film’s purpose is not to render fantastic images on the screen, but to ask us to picture in our own minds the burgeoning global surveillance state that Snowden’s confession paints for us. The big story of the film is that the interview Poitras was able to capture is the very same one that blew the lid off of the NSA surveillance scandal. However, Poitras does not sit proudly atop her footage, content just to be the one to bring it to us. She builds a shrewd, stimulating essay filled with knowledgeable persons. Instead of making “The Edward Snowden Film”, Poitras has respected Snowden’s wishes and made a great film with the information he disclosed. She darts from symposiums, to Congressional hearings, to clandestine Occupy Wall Street meetings. Snowden did not wish to become the lone face of the story he was unveiling, and Poitras wisely does not force him to be. This is not the story of a single citizen, but of a global citizenry awakening to find itself in a nightmarish predicament. Citizenfour is a real-life, globe-hopping John Le Carre novel, where we all have roles in the ensemble.
Citizenfour consistently finds ways to make the dawning knowledge of living in a world without privacy sickening, dizzying, and disorienting. Poitras’ editing is lean, heart-pounding, and tonally sinister, sustaining a sense of mounting dread that never relents, even when we are just sitting still and absorbing information. A low, droning score regularly buzzes in the background. During one conversation with Snowden and Greenwald, fire alarm bells continually sound off in the background, as if someone is trying to interrupt their exchange. Even a routine call from the front desk seeking a customer service review feels wracked with paranoia. Complete, uninterrupted privacy is an impossible dream. Snowden insists on placing a blanket over his head when he types in a computer password because the NSA could conceivably read the screen. The image is scary and silly in equal measure. And there is something strangely unsettling just in seeing the encrypted messages Poitras and Snowden use to communicate. Seeing recognizable words jumbled into an unruly mish-mash of numbers, letters, and symbols somehow captures the soul of what we have become since the towers fell. Without spelling it out, Poitras seems to imply that this is the world we now live in. A world at war over information, where the only way to protect your privacy is to dice and julienne what you say into ribbons. The alternative is to not say anything at all. Far from being a verbose and listless, Citizenfour is one of the best spy films ever made. No James Bond movie in history has felt this suffused with panic and claustrophobia.
One of the most visually chilling moments in the film comes from observing the construction site for a facility in Bluffdale, Utah, that will house intercepted data. Poitras does not need to goose the film to make these images resonate with frightful power. In the real dystopia taking shape as I write these words, these cold, monolithic blocks of concrete will store our words, our private confidences, and our lives. At a lecture in Brazil, Glenn Greenwald explains that governments will not only be able to collect our conversations, but will be able to assemble a narrative about who we are and what we will do from analyzing it. And all the while, real contractors and bulldozers and cement mixers have been arranged for to help erect the fortresses that will horde this treasure. Many political documentaries seek to stroke our ego and send us out into the fray ready to fight unjust conditions. Citizenfour is different. It does want us to feel enraged and it celebrates the journalists and citizens trying to undermine these brazen attacks on our civil liberties. But it is not hot-blooded. It is frigid to the core. It sits like a patient in shock and takes in Snowden’s intelligence with flabbergasted disbelief. It hopes to incense us all, but it also trembles with the gnawing suspicion that the wheels of this sinister new society have been irrevocably set in motion. Maybe it is too late.
Poitras has constructed both a disquieting expose and a ripping spy yarn, and the feeling it left me with was one of horror of the most enlivening kind. The information this film reveals is dreadful and dismaying. Once one fully acknowledges and appreciates the ramifications of the world Snowden has exposed, the only natural reaction can be some mixture of disgust and despair. And yet there I sat enjoying the hell out of this disturbing political documentary as if it were Three Days of the Condor. The heroes and villains of CItizenfour are all spies of varying kinds. The spies we root for are journalists and concerned citizens trying to take down, or at least expose, a larger, more sinister network of cutthroats, stretching all the way to the President of the United States. By end, we learn that 1.2 million American citizens are now being targeted by government watch lists. Poitras constructs her documentary as a spy movie because that is the world where we now awake to find ourselves. This world of fear and perpetual surveillance will be our homeland for the foreseeable future. The giddy technical bravado on display is like some kind of sick, all too appropriate joke on the audience. I left the theater riding a wave of adrenaline, but the next day’s aftertaste was one of great sorrow. I did not watch another movie that weekend.