Directed by Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, Citizenfour thrusts us into the tense buildup and aftermath of the historic interview between journalist and lawyer Glenn Greenwald, defense correspondent Ewen MacAskill and former NSA intelligence analyst Edward Snowden. Having created multiple documentaries about social justice causes, including a trilogy about post-9/11 America, Poitras knew why Snowden chose to contact her. Citizenfour is the final installment in her post 9/11 trilogy, which also includes My Country, My Country and The Oath.
Poitras: A Director To Watch
As the result of her previous filmmaking, Poitras is on a Department of Homeland Security watch list and had been detained more than 40 times while traveling into and out of the United States. She was so concerned that her surveillance film footage would be confiscated that she moved to Berlin to continue her work.
Poitras was in the middle of filming a documentary about post-9/11 surveillance when she started receiving encrypted communications from an anonymous source who first contacted her under the code name “Citizenfour.” The source wanted to release information about a massive and widespread covert surveillance program perpetrated by the NSA and other government entities. Ultimately, although Poitras insisted that Snowden enlist Greenwald to help release the information, it was Snowden’s idea to come forward and not be an anonymous source.
A Tense, Historic Eight Days
Poitras’s talent as a filmmaker is most evident during the eight days when she, Snowden, Greenwald and MacAskill were holed up in a Hong Kong hotel in 2013. During this time, Snowden provides details about the documents as he hands them over to Greenwald and MacAskill and tells them, “I will let you decide what to publish.” Although some may view this decision as irresponsible, Snowden’s reasoning is solid: He doesn’t want the story to be about him.
Though the camera work is shaky and out of focus at times, Poitras effectively conveys Snowden’s personality. Then 29, Snowden left a comfortable life in Hawaii, a well-paying job, close family and friends and a long-time girlfriend to go on the run. The gravity of his decision is not lost on him. Even when he cracks a smile, the stress is apparent.
After the Hong Kong interview is released to the public, Snowden tries to disguise his appearance with contact lenses and hair gel. It’s an incongruous moment, given that he is the type who normally styles his hair with a towel. Snowden is not prone to swagger, and when he puts on the suit that he wears out of the hotel, it looks awkward–a reminder that he is, at heart, a computer geek.
Asylum and the Aftermath
Snowden eventually seeks and receives asylum in Russia, a very odd choice given Russia’s own history of surveillance. At this point in the film, the perspective shifts and we can now only view Snowden from the outside looking in. No longer are we in the same room with him; instead we catch glimpses of him through windows, watching as he and his long-time girlfriend make dinner.
In all, Citizenfour is a cinéma vérité about journalism and those who risk their lives to bring the truth to the public. In the last part of the documentary, we see the extraordinary lengths to which journalists such as Greenwald go to protect their sources. Greenwald reveals to Snowden in a Russian hotel room that another whistleblower has come forward anonymously, and he writes the name of the whistleblower on the hotel’s stationery, out of the camera’s view. Snowden looks surprised. They continue a stilted conversation, writing furiously on paper. A new source and more details are to be revealed: Could this be a build-up to a sequel?
It’s an ending where we might half-expect Jason Bourne to jump through the window. As we know, unlike the Bourne movies, the events in Citizenfour actually happened, something that makes this film all the more frightening.