NYFF 2014: Incendiary, Essential ‘Citizenfour’ Illuminates Both Old and New Aspects of Edward Snowden Case
The strange thing is, you know that shirt. You know those glasses and the light stumble and the cut of his hair. You know his face, and you might even know the back of his head, reflected back at you, thanks to an artfully placed hotel mirror. What you don’t know is Edward Snowden, a not entirely blameless mistake that Laura Poitras’ incendiary Citizenfour, an intimate and informative look at the man behind the revelation of some of America’s most unsettling privacy policies (and the subject of so much of its ire). Poitras’ film provides unparalleled (and mostly unfettered) access to Snowden, as the whistleblower himself turned to Poitras before leaving the U.S. and sharing his knowledge (gathered from a stint in the intelligence world) with the world.
Documentarian Poitras is uniquely well-suited for the material, and it’s not surprising that someone as canny and clever as Snowden would reach out to her for both assistance and publicity (Poitras frequently reads out emails from Snowden during the film’s early sections, and his understanding of her work and what she can accomplish with it is obvious). Snowden even advises Poitras to wrangle some assistance, specifically naming journalist Glenn Greenwald as a likely accomplice (Greenwald effectively “stars” in the film alongside Snowden and Poitras). Citizenfour is the final entry in Poitras’ trilogy about post-9/11 America (she writes as much during the film’s opening credits) and Poitras’ own experiences with government surveillance and watch lists make her as much a subject of the film as Snowden himself. In some ways, though, we are all the subject of Citizenfour.
If Snowden looks familiar during the course of the film, that’s no coincidence. The bulk of the film takes place in the Hong Kong hotel room that Snowden hid out in immediately after his departure from America. It’s the hotel room where his first interviews were filmed, interviews that then bred the first round of fresh pictures of Snowden (again, that shirt, those glasses, that stubble). Snowden wasn’t alone there, he was accompanied by Poitras and her crew, Greenwald, investigative reporter Ewen MacAskill and, eventually, a handful of others. The film follows Snowden as he shares what he knows with Poitras, Greenwald and MacAskill, with the journalists feverishly working on their articles while Poitras both participates in and films the interactions.
During the course of the film, Snowden accurately predicts how he’ll be portrayed by the media – remember when the story was spun so that he sounded like some mid-level dude of average intelligence? five minutes of listening to Snowden talk about his work, and that claim is refuted once and for all – but he doesn’t seem bothered by it, at least initially. Later, especially after his identity is revealed and phone calls start pouring in, does he seem unnerved, and even then, he doesn’t waver. After all, how could he?
The film’s second act, the one which bridges the gap between the “before” portion of Snowden’s life (when he was simply a source to Poitras, Greenwald and MacAskill, before the world knew his name) and the “after” (once his name and face are revealed, and the danger mounts), falters and flatlines. Snowden is caged inside his hotel room, desperate to emerge, and viewers will likely feel similarly trapped. The minutiae of Snowden’s life – reading the Internet, watching cable news, gathering his electronics into plastic bags – is numbing, and although the idea of seeing what things were like for Snowden once he went to public, the actual execution bogs down the feature.
Things pick up exponentially once Snowden makes a break for it, and the film’s spy film tropes (but it’s real!) push the narrative forward into both the known and the unknown. Poitras has also assembled some fine pieces of additional material – other interviews, archival footage and the like – and they mostly fold neatly together to tell a story that’s almost too bizarre to be believed. It’s a comprehensive look at both Snowden and the climate in which his revelations were made known.
The film doesn’t answer nearly every question about Snowden, even some of the most pressing and obvious ones – while Poitras strives to convey exactly why he did what he did, the full extent of his motivations don’t quite shine through, and the basic mechanics of how he did it and when he did it (and even know he first reached out to Poitras) are never satisfyingly portrayed – and there are plenty of gaps in the narrative that grate. How did Snowden get out of Hawaii? What was that process like? Who did he stay between his outing and his escape to Russia? What did he do for forty days in the Sheremetyevo airport? How does he spend his days now?
The questions are almost endless, but Citizenfour stays wide open for further followups, and the intimacy and immediacy of the situations and experiences it does portray are compelling and satisfying enough to stick with viewers for long after the film has ended.
The Upside: Packed with both new and old information, Poitras’ film effectively synthesizes what we know (and what we think we know) into a compelling and rich narrative, provides a previously unavailable personal look at Snowden, entertains and informs while also proving to be terrifying, the final act is an eye-opener.
The Downside: The second act drags as we wait for the inevitable to happen, doesn’t answer a bevy of questions (large and small).
On the Side: The film’s final sequences with Snowden were filmed earlier this year, after Snowden had watched the documentary for the first time.
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