“This I can also prove.”
It’s fairly remarkable how Citizenfour escapes normal documentary proceedings and techniques to become an all-out disturbing thriller. The title comes from the name Edward Snowden identified himself as in encrypted emails with the film’s director, journalist Laura Poitras. And the movie itself is just as enigmatic. Snowden provides candid detail while we’re given one revelation after another, each astoundingly increased in magnitude. That’s what Citizenfour does best. The massive scale of the intrusive government activity spying on all of us is beyond unethical and unlawful. While it’s structure and narrative eventually falls apart, it’s still a crystal clear and alarming exposure of the powers at be.
Months of correspondence occurs between Snowden and Poitras between late 2012 and early 2013 before he finally agrees to meet in person. Up until that point the story is pretty much exposition, recounting the political and social landscape of the designated time period. It’s a solid refresher, but also unnecessary to include in a review…if you forget, look it up (carefully, as Snowden would suggest), or just watch the movie. Holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room with Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, we finally meet Mr. Snowden. No doubt he’d prefer the honorific dropped and simply be called Ed. Citizenfour covers a very expansive subject, but this is Snowden’s story, and the film works best when we’re locked in with him in that tiny high rise, listening to all of the dirty details happening right beneath our own manic fingertips.
While Poitras’ film voices the unjustices being committed by the government, it works better as a character study. Edward Snowden is freely open and willing to share the NSA’s secrets, even though it guarantees an errant life on the run from the law. Within minutes you can deduce that Snowden is always the smartest guy in the room. Yet unlike so many intellectuals, he is able to clearly convey his thoughts without ever going above your head or condescending in the process. He has the polite charm of his North Carolina roots and the bespectacled, plain white t-shirt with jeans of the stereotypical computer whiz. But there is more to him. He ensures the safety of his family and his longtime girlfriend, knowing that they will be bothered but seeking assurance that they are not harmed. Snowden, even as a rebel, is a disarming, friendly guy.
Poitras and Greenwald seem to be co-conspirators in the making of this movie. She’s the director with the authorial vision, he’s the onscreen talent, providing a connection between the audience and Snowden that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Their behind the scenes access is incredible, but in terms of filmmaking, Citizenfour is nothing special. A bulk of the film’s story is told through expository title cards so small and that go by so quickly you barely catch the entire jist. Besides that the movie flows well up until the last third. That’s when Snowden, the doc’s main attraction, almost entirely leaves the picture. We’re thrown into various courtrooms and poorly introduced to individuals, none of whom play any sort of pivotal role in progressing the story or shedding critical insight. Then, after all that mess, we get a boring aha! moment that’s supposed to blow our minds. The main problem? We don’t know what it is before the cut to black. Had Citizenfour grounded itself into its figurehead, it would have functioned better as a movie. As is, I’d compare it to a succinct suspense novel begging for a sequel.
The documentary is at its strongest when we’re with Snowden. His chief concern is with the limitating boundaries of intellectual freedom caused by the government’s spying. As a result, he’s hyper and paranoid, becoming nervous by a fire alarm test happening on his floor. The film fails to answer an important question though. Why you, Ed? Why work that kind of job if you know what might potentially be asked of you? Is Snowden just the chosen face of the whistleblower movement, or did he want this? That’s never clear. He almost seems like Neo trying to save us all from the pitfalls and confinements of The Matrix. But you could just as easily picture him as the leading man in Three Days of the Condor, unintentionally falling into the bad graces of the government. While it’s engaging, Citizen four doesn’t pack the visceral punch needed for such an unsettling cautionary tale. It’s kind of like plane turbulence. You’ll be frightened, but once you land, you forget the fear and go on your way. Citizenfour needed to make us crash.
“We are building the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5