My formative years have occurred during what’s dubbed the “post-9/11” era. Since then, the world has made significant social, technological, and legislative strides that I had no part in shaping. It was not until 2006, as a freshman in college, that I was first able to vote. By this point, five years after 9/11, I already had the preconceived notion that it was possible for the government to monitor its citizens. After all, the Patriot Act was sold as a utilitarian proposal that required a submission of privacy for the “greater good” of national security and the global war on terrorism. So last year, when Edward Snowden revealed the government’s mass collection of data on its citizens, it struck me as a clarification of the inevitable, and obvious. But as a millennial, my understanding of the ramifications of this massive data collection has been rudimentary at best. In Citizenfour, Laura Poitras not only captures Snowden detailing the method in which the government invades our privacy, but also captures those same methods in action.
If the film and Edward Snowden seem a little ridiculous from the start, it’s done so for effect. Images of texts and encrypted email exchanges between Poitras and Snowden ornate the beginning of the picture, where their eventual meeting is setup with precise detail and stipulations. The picture’s centerpiece is an interview between Snowden, Poitras, and American journalist Glenn Greenwald in a meager Hong Kong hotel room, with a waft of paranoia seeping into everyone’s actions. Snowden disconnects the hotel’s telephone as they begin the interview, emphasizing that the telephone could be bugged. When the hotel’s fire alarm goes off, it comes across as a coincidence - to Snowden, he interprets this as a potential breach in security. Everyone’s a little on edge as Snowden provides insider information on NSA data collection to Greenwald as Poitras captures footage. The anxiety of divulging this information slowly fills the hotel room until it can be contained no longer, where it eventually escapes the screen and envelops the viewer. Citizenfour begins as an exercise in questionable paranoia until it becomes paranoia-realized.
It’s after Greenwald goes to his media outlets and when Snowden outs himself as a whistleblower that the film successfully becomes everything that it’s spent time discussing. The mundane confines of the film’s Hong Kong hotel room seem comfy when faced with the strenuous efforts of evading authorities as Snowden, Poitras, and Greenwald go their separate ways. Compounded by Nine Inch Nails samplings, Citizenfour follows the eerie path of a public becoming aware of the prevailing governmental force and a government attempting to absolve themselves of any ill will. It’s seeing Snowden’s rhetoric come to fruition that’s most tantalizing and terrifying; all three are under immense scrutiny. Greenwald, who has fled to Brazil, notes that a subpoena would be a best case scenario if he were to return to the United States - death is a prevailing threat that intensifies as the picture progresses.
There’s an interesting and somewhat questionable absence of a political polemic to Citizenfour. The film’s design trades in spy-thriller sensibilities, with Poitras editing in a cold and exacting fashion akin to the film’s producer, Steven Soderbergh. Like many, Snowden expresses disappointment with Barack Obama’s administration, particularly in its perpetuation and expansion of many of George W. Bush’s policies - though fails to acknowledge the inflated hopes of grandeur that came with his election. Only one image of Obama makes the cut, with the president dismissing claims that Snowden is a patriot. Which calls to question Snowden’s actions. I’m grateful that he exposed the inner workings of a system that was far broader in reach than anyone anticipated, but there’s certainly an air of pomp to his rationalization of coming out as the whistleblower. The feeling that he parlayed his position of privilege as a NSA systems contractor to celebrity can’t be completely shaken for the first half of the picture, or at least until seeing the mechanics of government agency in action.
It’s not often that a documentary actually documents a culturally and historically affecting event but Citizenfour does so with an economic modesty that’s refreshing. History was made in that tiny Hong Kong hotel room but to what end? Exposure leads to discussion, but we still lack the fundamental legislation to see anything done about this massive invasion of privacy. The film ends on a note of anticipatory fear. Snowden and Greenwald converse through scribbled notes, with Poitras capturing the exchange. What’s written on these notes is unseen to the audience. Greenwald hands a note to Snowden, with Snowden’s eyes nearly escaping his skull saying “that’s fucking ridiculous”. If Citizenfour persuades you of anything, it’s that indeed, this invasion of privacy is fucking ridiculous.