Be afraid. Be very afraid.
This in essence is the message of “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras’ highly anticipated documentary on Edward Snowden’s decision to expose the National Security Agency’s ravenous appetite for clandestinely collecting the personal data of ordinary citizens. If left unchecked, the film persuasively posits, this lust for information on an unprecedented scale could mean the end of privacy as we know it.
Because Poitras was among the first people Snowden contacted, because she became involved in the process, this is first and foremost an advocacy documentary with a compelling you-are-there quality. It puts us in the room where Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald, his key conduit to the outside world, conferred in Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel over eight days as they made decisions about what was to be published and why.
These extensive hotel conversations are terribly exciting, but they take up so much of “Citizenfour’s” running time they also result in a more limited film than viewers may be expecting. What we get is as much an edited record of those historic high-tension days as an examination of the issues surrounding electronic surveillance. “Citizenfour” is a formidable viewing experience, but it’s not necessarily a problem-free film.
Poitras, a superb documentarian whose previous work includes “My Country, My Country” and “The Oath,” was already working on a documentary about governmental surveillance when, in a scenario worthy of John le Carre or even Eric Ambler, she was contacted by a source identified only as “Citizenfour.”
Insisting on fierce security protocols over and above the ones Poitras, herself a target of surveillance, already employed, Citizenfour and the filmmaker exchanged email messages for months, some of which appear on the screen and are read by Poitras in a calm, poised, quietly effective voice.
Citizenfour encourages Poitras and Greenwald, a journalist for Britain’s the Guardian, to work together. After some six months of complex email conversations, the three of them meet in that Hong Kong hotel to make final plans.
Given how much he’s been in the news since then, one key fascination of “Citizenfour” is the intimate glimpse it gives us of Snowden, whose slight frame and boyish looks bring to mind Abraham Lincoln’s apocryphal remark on meeting “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” author Harriet Beecher Stowe: “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
Yet the more we see of Snowden, whether talking to hotel reception or slipping under a blanket (“my magic mantle of power”) in order to hide his keyboard strokes from the camera’s eye, the more we see not only his intelligence and the strength of his resolve but the linked idealism and zealotry that must have motivated his actions.
Snowden’s articulate passion about the NSA’s extensive data gathering (“the reach of the system is unlimited ... it’s not science fiction, it’s happening right now”) fuels the argument he lays out in increasingly chilling and convincing detail about why it would take nothing more than “a change of policy” to turn this apparatus into “the greatest weapon for oppression in the history of the world.”
When the Guardian published Greenwald’s stories, a media firestorm erupted, and we see Snowden strategizing with Greenwald about when and how he should reveal himself as the source. He’s eager to do so because he believes “choice is power” and feels strongly that “skulking around in the shadows” is not what he wants to be doing. But once Snowden leaves the hotel room to go into hiding and eventual asylum in Russia, this film’s energy departs with him.
Because compelling as all the sequences with Snowden are, their length and intensity unbalance “Citizenfour.” They do not blend seamlessly with the rest of what’s been shot, footage that feels like the residue of the documentary Poitras was working on when Snowden first contacted her.
While some of the nonhotel room footage, like NSA director Keith Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper not telling the truth to Congress, fits well, other material, like Rio de Janeiro resident Greenwald testifying in Portuguese before the Brazilian Congress, are more random than effective, giving “Citizenfour” a disjointed feeling.
And though it’s the reason for “Citizenfour’s” most compelling footage, director Poitras’ insider status presents problems. There are things she likely knows (where Snowden went when he left the hotel room) but has no intention of telling us. She doesn’t explore possible downsides of Snowden’s actions, and she plays peekaboo with information from a second, previously unknown NSA leaker, teasing us with snippets of information in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s playing fair with the viewer.
Finally, however, carping about as significant a film as “Citizenfour” feels beside the point. You can wish its faults didn’t exist, but it does a real service in detailing what the scary consequences of those NSA actions could be. Poitras dedicates the film to “those who make great sacrifices to expose injustice.” She may well belong on that list.
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Playing: Landmark, West Los Angeles