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Review: Citizenfour (2014)

Citizenfour (2014)

Directed by: Laura Poitras

Premise: Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill interview former NSA employee Edward Snowden in which he exposes the United States’ government’s illegal surveillance operations.

What Works: Citizenfour is a Hollywood spy thriller come to life and it is as engaging and as tense as those kinds of films but it is given the added punch of being real. The movie recalls how Laura Poitras was contacted by a mysterious informant using the screenname “Citizenfour” and how they communicated through encrypted messages before finally meeting in person at a Hong Kong hotel for several days of interviews. That informant was Edward Snowden, a former NSA and CIA employee who discovered that the government’s intelligence agencies were lying to the public and to Congress about the extent of their surveillance programs. Rather than just spying on terrorists or suspected criminals, the government was in fact collecting information about everyone, netting virtually all electronic communication including emails, text messages, phone calls, and social media posts including those that were supposedly protected by privacy settings. What’s more, Snowden revealed that the major telecommunications companies were cooperating with the government and that in some cases the surveillance was international with United States agencies collaborating with other countries or collecting data on other world leaders. And the movie makes it clear that this information was weaponized, in particular against journalists who irritated the state. As revealed in Citizenfour, Laura Poitras had been interrogated by authorities and had to take her footage to Germany to protect it; shortly after the Snowden story broke Glen Greenwald’s partner was detained at an airport for no apparent reason. Citzenfour takes the audience through the process of breaking this story in much the same way that the feature film Spotlight dramatized the Boston Globe’s investigation into clergy sex abuse. It walks the audience through the perils and considerations of breaking a complex story, especially the way in which the journalists strategize the reveal of information for maximum effect. At the same time the movie is overcast with a shadow of paranoia as Snowden and his allies attempt to keep their interviews clandestine and evade the surveillance network.

What Doesn’t: Citizenfour was made by Laura Poitras who had previously produced and directed other documentaries critical of the United States government’s actions in the war on terror. She is immersed in these issues and Citizenfour tends to speak toward an audience that is already familiar with the concerns and critiques of expanded state power. This picture would have benefitted from more basic expository information. This would have provided context for viewers who aren’t as well versed in these issues and allowed them to make more sense of what Snowden is talking about and how it connects to their lives. The film would have also benefitted from more information on Snowden’s background. The filmmakers assume we know who he is and here again viewers who are attuned to current events will already know that but the general public does not. The content of the movie gives an explanation about why that information is omitted—Snowden doesn’t want the debate to be about him—but this biographical information would have helped Citizenfour’s argument. For instance, Snowden mentions how he felt the Obama Administration betrayed its initial pledge to be more transparent and that disappointment led to Snowden’s decision to leak. It’s an offhand comment that could have been seized upon to provide some more useful context and justify the leak of classified information.

DVD extras: Deleted scenes and interviews.

Bottom Line: Citizenfour is one of the essential movies of this period of time. This film distills the post-9/11 security state better than most other attempts and does so while telling a gripping story. The movie plays for a general audience and communicates complex information clearly although it plays a bit better for those who already have some knowledge of the subject matter.

Episode: #613 (September 25, 2016)