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NYFF 2014: Edward Snowden documentary 'Citizenfour' jolts film world

'Citizenfour,' Laura Poitras' documentary about Edward Snowden, offers new access to the NSA leaker

Many documentaries seek to kick-start environmental movements, reverse death row sentences or even change legislative policy.

But few come with the kind of ideological ambition of the Edward Snowden study "Citizenfour," a movie of grand scope that also tells an intimate personal story.

The long-awaited documentary from Snowden chronicler Laura Poitras arrived with a bang at its world premiere at the New York Film Festival on Friday night, receiving a rare festival standing ovation ahead of its theatrical release Oct. 24, when it could well jolt both the fall moviegoing season and the national conversation about privacy and security.

Poitras, as some may recall, shot the 12-minute video of Snowden that went viral in June 2013 and made the National Security Agency contractor, at 29, perhaps the most important and polarizing figure since Daniel Ellsberg. "Citizenfour” is, in effect, that original video effort writ very large — a look at how Snowden came to the decision to pull back the curtain on the NSA's massive surveillance operation and what happened to him when he did. 

It is also, needless to say, a portrait of that operation itself.

“It’s absolutely staggering and beyond what you can ever imagine,” Poitras said in an interview at the festival Saturday. “There’s the scope and desire of collecting all of this data, and also the mentality that if they have all communications they have these repositories they can query later. It’s shocking, really.”

Poitras is already well known as a foreign-affairs investigative journalist thanks to documentaries such as her Oscar-nominated “My Country, My Country.” Her new film begins with her voiceover describing how she had been contacted anonymously by a man identifying himself as "Citizenfour" who claimed to have proof of illegal government surveillance.

The source turns out to be Snowden, but before Poitras gets to him, she details the extensive national security apparatus that he will soon expose. The director has activists explain how the government uses so-called metadata to track phone calls and movements of ordinary citizens, and shows clips of James Clapper, director of national intelligence for the NSA, testifying before Congress that the government does not spy on millions of Americans.

The focus then shifts to Snowden, shot by Poitras over eight days in a now-famous Hong Kong hotel room with the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill present, ready to break stories based on the classified documents Snowden is leaking them. (Greenwald would eventually write a book on the experience called “No Place To Hide.”) There is a kind of unfettered, up-close detail to these scenes that would be startling for any interesting documentary subject, let alone for the world’s most famous fugitive. "Citizenfour" is an examination of a larger-than-life personality in the most handmade manner imaginable.

Snowden has made the decision to come forward, he says in the film, because he feels there’s a great threat to the future of American free speech. "The elected and the electorate," Snowden says, have become "the ruler and the ruled.”

Snowden shows the journalists documents that detail the surveillance efforts and the compilation of a massive database of information about U.S. citizens.

The greatest danger is that once this massive database exists, nothing can rebottle the genie. The only thing stopping massive leaks of personal data then would be a "policy switch” — and, as Snowden reminds, all it takes if shifting political winds for that switch to be flipped.

“This is not science fiction,” he tells Greenwald and Poitras. “This is happening right now.”

For all the gravity of his actions,  Snowden comes off as cool and composed, looking unnerved on only one or two occasions when the full extent of the danger he is in begins to dawn on him. There is, occasionally, a sense of no-nonsense confidence — particularly on the technical side of things — but also of a kind of admirable selflessness. He is willing, he says, to put himself in jeopardy if it ensures others’ right to privacy and free speech.

Soft-spoken but resolute, Poitras plays down the sacrifice she herself made to tell the story, though it was significant — with the entirety of the U.S. government hunting Snowden and seeking his extradition even as Poitras is shooting, the film could easily have not seen the light of day.

“The film is made with enormous risks not just to myself,” she said, “but to Snowden, Glenn and William Binney [a former NSA worker who also appears] It’s easy to look at it in retrospect and say these stories and documents were going to get out, but there was a lot of fear and danger.”

The screws eventually do tighten on Snowden and he flees to Moscow, at which point his communication with Poitras reverts to encrypted emails, which Poitras shows on the screen, "War Games" style. (Apart from the quickest glimpse, Poitras herself is ‎never seen in the film.)

With its focus on the ability of muckrakers and whistle-blowers to bring down powerful institutions, the film comes in the tradition of “All the President’s Men” as well as more recent, techno-centric tales as the Aaron Swartz documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy.”

Radius, which acquired “Citizenfour” in the spring, has high awards hopes, particularly given the dearth of female directors in this year’s race. At an after party Friday, the conversation quickly turned to the Oscars, with most observers feeling it was an instant front-runner to win best documentary and some even speculating about whether it could make a run in other categories. That attention should help galvanize its run in theaters, where few documentaries have much commercial traction. (HBO Documentaries boarded the project more recently and aims for a television airing in the spring of 2015.)

Poitras said in the interview that she hoped to continue following the story, and in fact may release the dozens of hours of footage from the Hong Kong hotel — in which details of the classified documents are revealed — in another form after the movie’s release. “It’s part of the public record. They need to get out,” she said.

There are reveals toward the end of the film of both the personal and political kind. For example, viewers learn that Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, is now living with him in Moscow.

The documentary also shows a scene in which Greenwald, meeting with Snowden in Moscow after the noise has quieted down, suggests that the U.S. goverment's "watch list" now numbers up to 1.2 million people. Snowden looks stunned by the revelation, and also somewhat gratified that others have stepped out of the shadows in his absence.

Indeed, his goal, he says, is to encourage others to come forward, and he seems to instinctively intuit throughout the film that‎ his survival is important not just for personal reasons but because the longer he can remain at large, the more likely others will feel emboldened to step forward.

Or as Snowden's father Lonnie said at the premiere Friday: "The truth is coming and it cannot be stopped. I believe there's far more to come."

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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