Laura Poitras, “Citizenfour” (2014)
As both fly-on-the-wall real-time documentary and historical thriller, “Citizenfour” is a riveting snapshot of the period in mid-2013 when US whistle-blower Edward Snowden contacted film-maker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald to reveal to them documents he had collected while employed as an IT contractor by the United States National Security Agency (NSA) that demonstrated that the NSA had been conducting a secret illegal surveillance program on millions of US citizens by collecting their telephone data and metadata from various telecommunications and telecom software companies such as Verizon and Skype.
As a more or less active participant in the events of the film, Poitras lets the central characters of Snowden and Greenwald and their actions take centre stage. There is no voiceover narrative but Poitras provides sufficient background information, including a video of US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lying under oath at a US Senate Committee on Intelligence hearing on information gathering: the video apparently galvanised Snowden onto his personal crusade to expose the fact that the US government was indeed illegally wiretapping its citizens’ phone and online conversations. The narrative backbone starts from Snowden’s initial contacts with Poitras and Greenwald and escalates quickly into their meeting in a ritzy hotel in Hong Kong in June. There, Snowden introduces himself to Poitras, Greenwald and British newspaper reporter Ewen MacAskill, and show the trio the thousands of NSA documents he had collected while employed at the agency. He arranges with Greenwald to reveal his identity as the whistle-blower through Greenwald and MacAskill’s employer The Guardian in mid-June. From then on, Snowden and the others go their separate ways: Snowden to escape the reach of the US government and find shelter in Russia, and Greenwald, MacAskill and Poitras to spoon-feed information about the reach and depth of NSA spying on Americans and non-Americans alike through The Guardian, The Washington Post, Brazil’s O Globo, Germany’s Der Spiegel and other Western news media outlets. Not only does Snowden fear for his life and those of his family and girlfriend but Greenwald and Poitras also feel the heat from the US and UK governments: Greenwald’s partner David Miranda is held for questioning by police who also seize his luggage at Heathrow Airport in London in August; and Poitras herself has been harassed by US border agents whenever she travels in and out of her home country.
Certainly prior knowledge of the events filmed in the documentary does help to understand the issues at stake but even viewers not familiar with Ed Snowden and what he did that aroused the ire of the US and UK governments against him, Poitras and Greenwald will be concerned at the threats against citizens’ freedoms and rights to free speech and privacy. Other issues that arise in the course of the documentary are dealt with fleetingly: the Western mainstream media concern with celebrities and personalities rather than with ongoing issues of freedom and democracy and how fragile these are (it’s ironic that Snowden and Greenwald discuss this some time before Snowden reveals himself as the mole and becomes both a media celebrity and target for US government ire); Snowden’s own anguish that what he himself is doing is illegal and how his actions might affect his family’s safety; and the law under which Snowden is being charged with espionage is an old law going back to the early 20th century that does not distinguish between selling secrets to a foreign enemy and divulging secret information in the public interest. The film also exposes the extent to which the UK government co-operates closely with the US in gathering information from its own citizens via the same methods as the NSA does from US citizens, and sharing that information with Washington.
There was not much new revealed in the documentary that I didn’t already know about Snowden and his flight to Moscow, aided by Wikileaks, or about Greenwald and his household of 99+ dogs in Rio de Janeiro. Brief entertainment is provided by vanity shots of Snowden preening himself while looking at the bathroom mirror.
On the whole Snowden and Greenwald are presented in a positive way; even Greenwald’s then employer The Guardian itself is shown as a passive but neutral participant in the film. After the events documented in the film, Greenwald left The Guardian to join US billionaire entrepreneur Pierre Omidyar’s news venture The Intercept, along with Poitras and investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, and The Guardian itself has become a propaganda shill for US and UK government policies and agendas. I think Poitras is rather remiss in not showing that she and Greenwald had started working for a new employer during the making of the documentary as the film’s chronological coverage extends to mid-2014.
From a purely technical viewpoint, the film is well made with a definite narrative that provides the drama and tension that anchor the work and keep audiences’ attention steady until the end.