Thirty years after the title year of George Orwell’s “1984,” the Oscar-worthy “Citizenfour” features a real-life modern-day Winston Smith. But instead of battling Big Brother’s Thought Police, dissident Edward Snowden exposes Uncle Sam’s sweeping surveillance systems.
Ironically, filmmaker Laura Poitras uses a nonintrusive cinematic method to reveal what may very well be the most intrusive eavesdropping nexus in human history. Poitras deploys a fly-on-the-wall style of nonfiction filmmaking to tell the incredible true tale of Snowden and his shocking revelations.
In January 2013, the then-anonymous Snowden commenced corresponding with Poitras via encrypted e-mail, using the handle “Citizenfour” which, as Poitras explained on Democracy Now, he chose because he wasn’t the first and won’t be the last citizen to come forward to blow the whistle on government wrongdoing. Snowden handpicked Poitras because this award-winning documentarian “had long been a target of government surveillance … and refused to be intimidated,” according to press notes.
“Citizenfour” opens with a moving shot of overhead lights in darkness, later revealed to be part of a sequence Poitras filmed from a moving car passing through a tunnel in what turns out to be Hong Kong. As the doc explains, because the former British colony is now part of the People’s Republic of China, Snowden carefully selected Hong Kong as the place to spill the beans.
Snowden suggested that Poitras, who was living in Berlin, involve Glenn Greenwald, then with The Guardian, in reporting his disclosures. (Snowden had actually initiated contact with Greenwald, an outspoken pro-civil liberties columnist and author, in December 2012, but communication efforts failed because the Rio-based writer negligently failed to encrypt his messages.) On June 3, 2013, Poitras, Greenwald and Guardian writer Ewen MacAskill rendezvoused with Snowden at Hong Kong. “Citizenfour” proceeds to take us inside the high-level analyst’s room at the Mira Hotel.
The then-twenty-nine-year-old Snowden—who’d flown to Hong Kong from Hawaii, where he’d worked as a private contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton and Dell—comes across at all times as calm, cool, collected, and extremely knowledgeable. The slim, stubbly, bespectacled whistleblower dresses simply, often appearing onscreen in a white T-shirt and jeans, movingly recounts his growing awareness of the out-of-control, intrusive, and unconstitutional nature of the surveillance apparatus he had been a part of while he was working with the CIA and NSA.
Snowden resists the tendency of personality-driven U.S. news to “become the story,” emphasizing instead that the focus of reportage should be on the importance of his revelations about mass government spying. Nevertheless, Snowden is well aware of the firestorm he’s unleashing and how it could possibly cause him dire consequences. He still decides to come forward, take responsibility for his actions and publicly unmask himself—although not to turn himself over to U.S. authorities, who proceed to charge him with violating the WWI-era Espionage Act and seek his arrest.
Those caught up in the tense drama of the unfolding of these colossal security leaks, which Greenwald previously detailed in the book “No Place To Hide,” will likely be enthralled by this behind-the-scenes distillation of what happened during those heady June days within the confines of the four walls of the Mira Hotel. Those less interested in the story and its related issues may find some of the talking head footage to be claustrophobic.
But once The Guardian starts breaking the story that would go on to score a Pulitzer, Poitras cuts to media reports on the revelations. There are also “cameo” appearances by key players in the drama throughout the film. Fellow whistleblower William Binney, Greenwald’s partner David Miranda (who was famously detained at Heathrow Airport) and WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange—who helped Snowden attain asylum in Russia—appear onscreen.
Clips of NSA chief Keith Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper show them testifying to Congress prior to Snowden’s leaks, denying that all the rogue analyst later detailed even existed. After Snowden’s revelations came to light, Clapper told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that “For me this is literally, not figuratively, literally gut-wrenching.” Perhaps he said this because he had been caught red-handed making false statements under oath during congressional testimony.
ATTENTION PLOT SPOILERS: Poitras’ grand finale is one of the best cliffhangers in cinema history.
Months after their Hong Kong adventure, Greenwald is reunited with Snowden in Moscow. There, via scribbling and doodling on pieces of paper that are then torn up, he proceeds to inform Snowden about the latest revelation by another whistleblower, who has been inspired by Snowden’s example and actions. One of the revelations causes an astounded Snowden to exclaim: “That’s fucking ridiculous!” If you look closely at one of the scraps of paper shown in close-up, it reads “POTUS.” The clear suggestion is that another revelatory shoe is going to drop, implicating President Obama in the still unraveling surveillance scandal.
As Snowden’s e-mail alias Citizenfour indicates, more citizens are coming forward to tell the truth about the national security state. Laura Poitras has stated that “Citizenfour” is, with “My Country, My Country” and “The Oath”, the third in her “post-9/11 America trilogy.” But in that Hollywood tradition, the suspenseful ending of “Citizenfour” clearly sets the stage for a sequel.
L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell is the co-author of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).