“For now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell-phone tower you pass, friend you keep, site you visit and subject line you type is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not.” These words were part of the first cryptic message from CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden, using the handle Citizenfour, that filmmaker Laura Poitras received. Such a message could be used to kick off a great spy thriller, and that is exactly what they do in Citizenfour.
Winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary, the film has the stated aim of exploring surveillance in post 9/11 America. However, this is really the backdrop to a much more localised and character-driven film. Poitras starts off with a brief overview of what was known about surveillance before the Snowden leaks, then it’s off to Hong Kong with fellow investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald. Here, we enter into a world of spy movie tropes like meetings in a hotel lobby, carrying certain objects to recognise each other and exchanging passphrases. However, once we are in Snowden’s hotel room and Poitras turns on her camera, we are given one of the most unique and intense spy thrillers in the history of cinema.
Much of the film takes place over eight days in this one room, but these scenes are by far the most engrossing. Anybody who managed to sit through the debacle of Kim Dotcom’s “Moment of Truth” will know that despite awkward surroundings, Edward Snowden is a very engaging speaker. When he talks about why he is doing this, he come across as thoughtful, sincere and passionate. His descriptions of what he did for the CIA and the power and scope of the surveillance assemblage are both frightening and convincing.
In terms of the narrative this sets up the protagonist as a noble little guy standing up to a seemly omnipotent governmental force. So when Snowden, Greenwald and later another journalist Ewen MacAskill begin talking about strategies around how the leaks will be released and when and if Snowden should personally goes public, the stakes feel incredible high.
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Unexplained phone calls and the fire alarm being set off all feel like parts of a conspiracy theory closing in on our heroes. When the anxious Snowden has a break from typing on the laptop to take in the view from the window of tenth floor room, it is easy to imagine him being suddenly hit by a sniper bullet from a CIA rifle. However, despite some similarities this is not a Bourne film. Instead of gunfights the plot becomes a media conflict as Poitras, Greenwald and MacAskill start publishing and the American Government goes into damage control. Once Snowden himself enters the limelight we witness what it is like to suddenly become the most wanted person, by government and media, in the world. As human rights lawyers whisk Snowden off to a safe house, we see someone who clearly knew where his path was taking him and is both happy and terrified to have finally gotten there.
The final act of the film, which deals with the immediate aftermath of the revelations, is much less engaging. We hear from a bunch of people who are simply not as likeable or interesting as those from the Hong Kong hotel room. Not surprisingly, while journalists all over the world start using this information to expose America’s surveillance in their countries, the Obama administration remains unrepentant. Also deflating is a scene in which the UK government compels The Guardian to physically destroy the flash drive that Snowden gave them. The film does try to end of the positive note that Snowden has inspired new whistleblowers, but this positivity is somewhat undercut by the fact that the information they are passing on paints and even more dystopian picture.
Citizenfour is a good film if you want to get angry at powerful governments, which is not much of a accomplishment in today’s world, but its real achievement is telling the personal story of someone who went beyond anger and tried to change things.