CITIZENFOUR evokes the two ideological bogeymen of the modern world; one threatens a world without privacy, where one cannot speak or act freely, and the other threatens a world with no security, where lives are lost and terrorism runs rampant as society falls into chaos. It tells the story of a man, Edward Snowden, who sought to fight the former while risking the latter.
A security expert working for the NSA, he realized the scope and illegality of American surveillance programs, and went public, meeting in Hong Kong with documentarian Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald (and later Ewen MacAskill), whom he recruited to tell the story in an objective and ethical manner. Now wanted by the American authorities, he lives in Moscow (for now), and whatever one thinks of him and his actions, their importance is unquestioned, and the film tells this vital story in as sharp and uncompromising a manner as it deserves.
The film begins in early 2013, when Poitras first receives an e-mail from Snowden under the alias “CITIZENFOUR”, explaining how the U.S. is spying on its own citizens and those of other countries, and how the intelligence community has lied about it. He claims to have proof–but it can only be shared under extremely secure circumstances. A meeting is arranged, and along with Guardian reporter Greenwald, Poitras meets him in a hotel in Hong Kong, and over the course of 8 days he shares his evidence and tells his story, and as the outside world reacts in horror to his revelations, he and his confidantes prepare for the impact it will have on their lives.
Interspersed with this we have material featuring NSA whistleblower William Binney, Lavabit operator Ladar Levison (who shut down his service when the NSA pressured him to share client information), and security expert/hacker Jacob Appelbaum, all of whom express their dismay at the state of government surveillance.
But the focus, and the enduring value of the film, is what transpires in that hotel room over those 8 days, and the glimpse it gives us of a man who essentially, with a few Flash drives, compromised the most sophisticated surveillance operation in human history. Snowden, as the film portrays him, is not really seeking the spotlight–he deliberately selects journalists to break the story, rather than doing it himself–but is instead doing what he believes is right. Of course, “right” is so often a relative term; proponents of the NSA would maintain that its activities are meant to save innocent lives, and that this benefit outweighs any right to privacy, just as its opponents would say Snowden was right to expose invasive practices which, as he says in the film, ultimately deny people their own agency.
Snowden himself is a rather unassuming figure; calm, good-natured, with a casual sense of humor, he comes off as an intelligent, honest individual. To be fair, Poitras may have edited the material to highlight Snowden’s good side, but she doesn’t really glorify him; she puts a human face on the act of whistleblowing, one which covers itself with a shirt (“my magic mantle of power”) to obscure some computer activity, or obsesses over its freshly-gelled hair before stepping out into the world which it has just altered. It preserves for posterity the humanity behind the act, and for that, it is truly invaluable.
The film opens with an image I kind of wish it had maintained throughout; darkness, except for a row of road-tunnel lights at the top of the screen, as the camera slowly, silently moves through a darkened tunnel with no light at the end, as Poitras’ (I would assume) somber voice reads the communiqués between herself and Snowden. This image, I think, really sums up the film and the issues it attempts to tackle; “security” and “privacy” are ultimately rather vague concepts, and how the desire for protection and the desire for freedom are to be reconciled is an issue with no clear resolution. There is no real light at the end of this tunnel–not yet.
For the most part, Poitras presents the material straightforwardly; she uses some Nine Inch Nails music to give the film an eerie, disquieting air (which occasionally feels heavy-handed), but for the most part unsettles one with her very directness, like the shots of security installations in the U.S. and U.K., forbidding sites sans much human presence. At times, all the sitting and talking, often about the nitty-gritty of security programming, can get a touch tedious; maybe I just needed my coffee, but these sequences had me shifting in my seat a fair amount.
But the film’s lapses are forgivable in light of what it does right. It’s as chilling and haunting a film as I’ve seen in a long while, and like JFK, it leaves one more sad than anything else, sad about the state of the world, sad about the stranglehold paranoia has on humanity, sad because…where can we go from here? When a data card Snowden gave MacAskill about British surveillance programs is suppressed by government order and destroyed by the Guardian, it’s heartbreaking, but the fact that the act is caught on film and preserved for perpetuity gives one the faintest glimmer of hope that the truth cannot be wholly extinguished.
Or maybe Snowden is foolhardy, risking innocent lives in the pursuit of a false ideal, and the Guardian acted prudently to protect British interests. The dilemma remains in place. The film does not go out of its way to present the other side, and its presentation of official denials is clearly meant to raise skepticism, but it is not a pro-Snowden polemic. It is ultimately the story of the state of the modern world and of Snowden’s revelation, and it will be a must-see for students of modern history for years to come.
In the film’s final moments, Greenwald visits Snowden in Moscow, and writes down the details of further revelations (he does not speak them out loud), before ripping the notes up into a mountain of shreds, which are then scooped up for, I would gather, covert disposal. In the digital era, in the era of cell phones and e-mails and social media, secrets must once again be shared like notes in grade school. But what matters to Greenwald and Poitras is that they are shared.