Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Citizenfour Movie Review

It’s not very often I get turned around on an issue from a documentary film. I didn’t think much about Edward Snowden when his name was big in the news for revealing that the NSA was collecting data on everyone’s phone calls and emails. It struck me as suspicious that, of all places, he wound up in Russia, after first spending significant time in China. Was some foreign government supporting him? And why? I thought, at the very least, he had committed a crime by leaking classified documents. Laura Poitras’s documentary Citizenfour allows us to spend lots of time with him, giving us the sense of really getting to know the man and make a decision for ourselves about him.


After providing the necessary background on the story and how Snowden got involved with Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, they are all holed up together in the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong. The centerpiece of the documentary has Snowden being debriefed by Greenwald and Guardian investigative journalist Ewen MacAskill. Without much cutting away, Poitras gives us a picture of Snowden through extended takes, conversations, and explanations of his motives. The hotel room itself becomes a claustrophobic prison that perhaps aids in fostering Snowden’s increasing paranoia about being pursued by NSA goons. He goes on at length about the need for open debate in a democracy. He was shocked that the American government was accessing and storing metadata on every citizen’s phone calls. He views himself as a freedom fighter, a brave whistle blower sacrificing his future, his career, and his family for the good of freedom and democracy.

Citizenfour (that’s the code name Snowden gave himself when he first contacted Poitras before leaking the documents), feels at times like the film version of long form journalism where a reporter takes the time to fully investigate a story, becomes intimate enough with and gains the trust of a source to the point that he says very revealing things on the record. I felt as if I was getting to know Snowden and he comes across as earnest, idealistic, and perhaps a little naïve in going to work for a spy agency and being surprised to discover that there’s spying going on there.

But then I went and refreshed my memory of the Snowden story and its details and I realized that Poitras’s film has an agenda to pain Snowden as a hero and the government as nefarious. I thought it strange in the film when Greenwald seems to be plotting with Snowden how best to reveal his information and identity to best achieve Snowden’s political ends. When the journalist has agency in the story, it’s no longer just reporting. He’s actively making the story.

This is not to mention the things that Poitras completely fails to mention or examine in the story. There were eleven days between Snowden’s leaving the U.S. and his arrival at the Mira Hotel to meet with Greenwald and Poitras. There’s no questioning of what was going on during that time. Nor does Poitras bother investigating the role of Julian Assange and Wikileaks in getting Snowden out of Hong Kong and into Russia. And the biggest omission of all is the absence of any mention of the million and a half documents Snowden stole that were not related to privacy violations of American citizens, but to spying programs against countries like Russia, China, and North Korea, representing about 75 percent of everything he stole.

If you’re only concerned with Snowden as hero and martyr for American civil liberties, then Citizenfour is a fascinating and informative vessel. But it just doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny and leaves too many questions unexamined with Snowden coming across as more of an enigma than a clear-cut public servant.

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