Director: Laura Poitras
Cast: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras
Watch Citizenfour online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Google Play
The most astounding thing about Citizenfour is that it exists.
Two years ago, nobody – not even Laura Poitras – had heard of Edward Snowden. Now, you can enjoy the online streaming of the Oscar-winning documentary of the globally reported leak of intelligence about to-secret US surveillance. Cliché though it is, you couldn’t make it up.
The film itself is thrilling, troubling and essential viewing; as The Day Today once put it, fact times importance equals news. Chances are, you’re actually involved, if you’ve ever sent an email or logged onto Google. Hell, reading this review might warrant a tiny, digital red flag being wa(i)ved over your privacy rights. So watch this film while you can, and marvel at its existence.
Documentaries tend towards two categories: the ‘then’ (talking heads, archive footage) and the ‘now’ (handheld reporting, the story taking shape en route). On the surface, Citizenfour is the very essence of now; what’s intriguing is that the process of making it is also very aware of its likely importance to the ‘then’. Why did Edward Snowden ask a documentarian to fly to Hong Kong? He could have chosen any number of print or online journalists, but he knew he was creating an earthquake and needed a seismograph to record it. This is literally history in the making.
Ironically, Poitras didn’t know that and the film’s first act gives a feel for the impending scoop. The director was already working on a film about government surveillance; as the film’s opening humblebrag puts it, this is the third in a trilogy of films Poitras has made about post-9/11 America. Indeed, that’s the very reason Snowden chose Poitras. As the emails from ‘Citizenfour’ (aka Snowden) take hold, shards of story gradually begin to glue together until, with true cloak-and-dagger excitement, her source sets up a meeting in Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel.
And then we’re in Snowden’s hotel room. The visual simplicity, the formal limitation of the filming, belies the story’s reach. On one level, this is simply a great study of investigative journalism in action, showing how reporters, such as the ace Glenn Greenwald, handle a source, obtain information, decide their strategy for releasing the story to the wider world, and get the jitters when the hotel fire alarm goes off. You could double-bill it with All The President’s Men and it wouldn’t look any less dramatic for being a documentary.
Then there’s the scandalous impact of Snowden’s revelations. Poitras deftly balances how much to give away and how to make it accessible. Partly, that’s the result of her initial research, which provides a valuable primer into esoteric concepts, such as metadata, that soon become key to understanding the relevance of what Snowden is leaking. Partly, though, it’s the judicious use of TV reports: bite-sized bombshells that, crucially, take us out of the room to raise the dramatic stakes.
And then there’s Snowden: what a fascinating character. Whatever the US Government says, he’s a hero for what he’s done, a guy willing to shine a flashlight into shadows that everybody else would have otherwise ignored. And yet… the more he says he’s not the story, the more you might feel he doth protest too much. Clearly, he is the story: an inversion of the rain-coated Deep Throat image of the whistleblower. Snowden has deliberately become the face of the leak in order to gain traction in our celebrity-obsessed world. It helps that he is eloquent, good-looking and charismatic, and one hell of a showman. It is incredibly revealing that, when he arranges to meet Poitras, in place of a trilby or red rose, she’ll be able to identify him because he’s putting together a Rubik’s cube. Cute metaphor, huh?
Snowden is so compelling that you’d think the film would sacrifice much of his power when he goes underground and Poitras has to pick up the pieces elsewhere. Far from it: the final stretches of the film gain in urgency and power because of how quickly, and how widespread, the ramifications emerge (and, incidentally, entirely vindicating Snowden; ultimately, he really isn’t the story). If the film has – up to this point – successfully completed its Rubik’s cube, now Poitras scrambles the evidence to suggest that we’ve only nailed one corner of an even bigger cube.
The finale is messy but deliberately, compellingly so. By the time her camera returns to Snowden, even he seems taken aback by how big the story becomes – at which point, the film stops… to be continued in real life. That was then, this is now. Citizenfour feels less like a film than the ‘previously on’ recap to tomorrow’s news headlines.