Remember the NSA leaks of 2013? As an average U.S. citizen, what I knew of the NSA scandal was fairly surficial: some Joe named Snowden released information about the NSA unlawfully spying on citizens and corporations. Naturally, the U.S government wasn’t entirely ecstatic about the situation, criminalizing him for espionage. Channeling his inner exile, Snowden ended up seeking asylum in Russia and, last I heard, was kickin’ it with Putin in Moscow. This large reveal led to Snowden disclosing that the NSA was breaking several privacy laws in order to gain information about potential terrorism. Through all of this, the story of Edward Snowden was particularly interesting because his name was unknown to the public until this worldwide phenomenon. His story is brought to life in the Academy Award winning documentary, Citizenfour.
This documentary is special in its own regard, just because of the process and semi- coincidental nature in which it was made. In January of 2013, an unknown source, referring to themselves only as ‘Citizenfour,’contacted Laura Poitras through encrypted messaging and requested to meet in Hong Kong. Poitras, at the time, had been actively working on part three of a three part documentary series about America’s domestic surveillance in post 9/11 America. The stranger, aware of her documentary background, revealed to her over encrypted messaging several outlines of confidential government-run surveillance programs. Poitras immediately disconnected her laptop from the internet, fearing that the fragile intelligence she had just received would somehow be tapped by curious government agencies. At that moment, she had an inkling that part three of her documentary series was about to get a serious makeover.
In June of 2013, Laura Poitras, joined by investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald and intelligence reporter Ewen MacAskill, travelled to Hong Kong to meet with ‘Citizenfour.’ Lo and behold, Edward Snowden was there waiting for them. The first time Snowden appears on camera, it is quite a surreal feeling for the viewer. To see the whistle-blower that rocked the nation casually converse with the likes of Glenn Greenwald in a hotel suite halfway across the world is somewhat bizarre. From the get-go, Snowden informed the three journalists of his situation including the information he has obtained, and what he planned to do with it. The first two-thirds of the movie documents this plan, and discusses the information he had acquired and how they will all release the information to the public in a favorable manner. In this way, the viewer is shown exactly how this hugely controversial event in America came to be, from inception to the public statement by Snowden.
As a movie, this documentary is made in an effective and stimulating way. Citizenfour can be described as being shot in the cinéma vérité style, or in a less pretentious way of saying it, barebones filmmaking. Cinéma vérité is the purest form of shooting a movie – what is seen through the lens of the camera is what is shown on the screen after production. The presence of a filming camera is continually acknowledged, as it presents an almost aggressive approach for filming whatever is in front of the camera. Citizenfour implements this strategy effectively, not shying away from filming and questioning Snowden during intense or emotional moments throughout the movie. In this way, the documentary offers a raw and vulnerable vantage point from which the severity of Snowden’s situation is demonstrated. In parts where Snowden is not explicitly talking to the journalists about secretive government surveillance programs, Poitras asks him questions relating to his emotional state. Snowden responds naturally and truthfully, revealing the endearing side of him that is frightened and is genuinely concerned for their safety.
An incredible facet of Citizenfour is how tense the movie can be. Never before have I been on the edge of my seat with sweaty palms while watching a documentary. Throughout the documentary, there is a looming, yet unlikely threat of the government somehow catching wind of Snowden’s intentions before his famed public address. Because of this, instances when various strange but random occurrences such as an unwarranted fire alarm test or a telephone that won’t stop ringing, happen to be particularly intense for the viewer and I couldn’t help but think Seal Team Six was going to bust through the door at any moment. Poitras could have easily just edited these parts out, but by including them, she displayed how being cooped up in a hotel room for weeks can cause paranoia about the slightest peculiarity.
Citizenfour is one of the most important documentaries made in this decade with regards to the present state of the country. It is definitely deserving of winning the Academy Award for best documentary because of the sheer bravery of the crew that produced it, and the fact that it was even made in the first place is an unbelievable accomplishment. I recommend this movie to everyone no matter what your standing is on national security and the lengths that our government takes to achieve it.