Citizenfour Dir. Laura Poitras

[Radius TWC; 2014]

Styles: documentary
Others: The Oath, Dirty Wars

It’s immediately clear how much control filmmaker Laura Poitras has over her new documentary, Citizenfour. She wasn’t working with much in putting it together, at least not in terms of the sheer amount of footage she was able to shoot, which makes it all the more impressive that she’s produced an efficient, powerful film that deepens and refines one of the biggest news stories of the 21st century.

I’m talking about the revelations of NSA cyber-spying made by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. I’m also talking about Snowden himself, who contacted Poitras offering the information that became this film using the encrypted email moniker from which the film takes its title. Snowden has worked hard to play down his whistleblower vs. government story and to up the content of what he has actually blown. The thing about this documentary is, all of that information is already out there. Glenn Greenwald, the reporter for The Guardian who is heavily featured here, shook the world when he printed it last year. Citizenfour, however, contains something all of that reporting doesn’t: the most intimate footage of Edward Snowden that there is ever likely to be. Since he was preparing to go underground at the time he let himself be filmed, the amount of time Poitras had to shoot him was short and precious. Though she avoids milking her privileged contact, and in fact reveals little about about the whistleblower as a person, she manages retroactively to give a great amount of gravity to the information he has already revealed.

Though Poitras is herself a print journalist, having written articles for the Boston Globe and The Nation, the job she takes on with this film is mainly documenting Greenwald’s extended interview session with Snowden, and the concussive media waves that immediately followed. Snowden the man is downplayed, and the legal concerns raised by his revelations are as salient as he wanted, but the de facto human protagonist of this film, who in fact gets more focus than Snowden, is Greenwald himself. Just days after Greenwald publishes the first of Snowden’s bombs in The Guardian, the latter flees Hong Kong, under UN support, for Russia, where he still maintains asylum. Thereafter, Poitras’s camera has no access to him; she continues her story by following Greenwald and the stories he continues to write and print.

Poitras has a crisp, controlled, fact-oriented style of presentation that is a simple reflection of the professionalism of both Snowden and Greenwald. The fascination inherent to her footage, of being party to the exact minutes that led to one of the most significant stories in recent years, is akin to what it would be like if a can of Super 8 film was uncovered showing Woodward and Bernstein meeting with Deep Throat: it lends immediacy and heft to what was already great reporting. This alone would be enough for an essential documentary. But the filmmaker goes farther; she teases out of her story a subtle theme of control.

Snowden, one of those wunderkind computer programmer/data analysts, worked throughout his 20s for the CIA, the NSA, and private contracting firms who provided computerized spying services for both. The aim of his employers was control of information by and about the public, nominally (but Snowden’s goal is to give the lie to this) to aid the US in its War on Terror. Snowden chose to give Poitras and Greenwald his wealth of inside knowledge — and stolen NSA documents — because he recognized the control they possessed, as proven, responsible reporters with large, attentive audiences. And of course he showed immense control himself, not to mention ethical courage, over the release of the atomic bomb-sized whistle he was about to blow.

It’s clear that the story Snowden gave to Poitras and Greenwald is so big, its ramifications so far-reaching, that the primary accomplishment of this film is the calm, orderly, detail-oriented way in which it presents the information Snowden had to give. As a mini-portrait of the ordeal that people have to go through to accomplish this kind of whistleblowing, from the steps Snowden took to escape his regular life and contact journalists to the exceptional work that the journalists are still doing, which of course includes this film itself, Citizenfour is something exceptional: an example of good reporting that has the very real potential to reach a wide audience and effect public opinion.

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