Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Movie Review: Citizenfour

Directed by: Laura Poitras.

No matter what you think of Edward Snowden – I would encourage you to see Citizenfour, and do so with an open mind. This is a documentary, made my filmmaker Laura Poitras, as a paranoid thriller – in which we witness it subject as he is making history – meeting with the director and journalist Glen Greenwald from The Guardian over the course of a week in a hotel room in Hong Kong. During the course of this one week, Snowden will give Greenwald, and his colleague, all the top secret information that he stole from his job working for the NSA – information that essentially proves that the government is collecting data from pretty much everyone. Snowden worked for Booze Allen, but was loaned out to the NSA for years, and finally decided to take a moral stand for what he believes in, and got all the information to reporters that he trusted – reporters who would have access to everything Snowden took, but would be free to publish whatever they want. Poitras was contacted through secret, encrypted e-mails from Snowden – who picked her because of her previous work (two feature documentaries about the Post 9/11 World, and her work with another former NSA employee – William Binney, who explains the ins and outs of what exactly happened. Citizenfour doesn’t pretend to me a fair and balanced documentary – it is pro-Snowden all the way, and doesn’t hide that fact – Poitras even seems to be protective of Snowden.

We know the information that Snowden leaked out a year ago now – it basically showed that the NSA had the capability to collect not just “metadata” – that is information like who is talking to who – but the ability to intercept content as well – that is precisely what is written to others in e-mails, or said over the phone. We also know well what happened to Snowden after the stories came out – he didn’t try to hide his identity, which he knew would be futile, but instead gave an interview to Poitras, who gave it to the news networks, where he came forward as the leak. He then fled Hong Kong, and ended up in no man’s land in an airport in Russia, after American revoked his passport. He has now been granted residency there and lives there in an undisclosed location.

Citizenfour is fascinating as it shows this history as it happens. Much of the movie is just Poitras and her camera, Snowden and Greenwald in the hotel room, as Snowden explains the information he is revealing, his motivation for revealing it, and his desire to not try to hide. It is tempting to see Snowden as an idealist – and to some he is a hero for revealing what he did. That is also clearly how Poitras sees him – she never really pushes Snowden on any of his answers, but simply shows Snowden how he wants to be seen. I found myself questioning his motivations a little bit more than Poitras did – there is certainly a degree of self-aggrandizement to him that goes unquestioned. I’m also not ready to just call Snowden a hero, like some have. Yes, the information he revealed was disturbing in the extreme – and has led to a necessary debate about what the government should be allowed to do and monitor, especially without a court order. But do we really want individual employees of the NSA, or CIA or FBI, etc., deciding what information should be revealed to the public, and what information should be considered top secret? There needs to be a balance between what the government can monitor and civil liberties to be sure – but if everyone did what Snowden did, then the entire intelligence gathering industry by the government would fall apart. Is that what we want?

Citizenfour doesn’t really address those questions – at least not very deeply. But they are definitely in the movie just the same – and will likely inspire heated debate between viewers after the film. But there is still value in showing Snowden in the way he wants to be seen – and Greenwald how he wants to be seen as well.

Besides, that is just one element of Citizenfour, which Poitras edits like a political thriller – more than one person evokes the name John LeCarre in the film – and at times, this certainly does feel like a real life spy movie. Poitras uses her editing, her shots of various chats between the various players involved, and the great music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to paint a truly disturbing, terrifying, real world paranoid thriller. It almost plays alike a dystopian fantasy at times – while Snowden certainly references Obama, and Bush, as well as others as the “villains” in the movie – the reality is that villain is really some sort of huge, multinational conglomerate of government agencies and giant corporations – a nameless, faceless entity of enormous size. Some of Snowden’s precautions seem to be taking paranoia to an extreme degree – the way he unplugs his hotel phone, because he’s worried it is being used a live mic (by who, he never says), the way he jumps at a fire alarm testing, or how he covers himself with a towel while entering in some information on a computer – although the only people in the room are the ones he is revealing the information to in the first place. But hell, Snowden had good reason to be paranoid – and according to Poitras, so do the rest of us.
Citizenfour is a fascinating, disturbing documentary. I certainly don’t agree with all of the arguments the film makes – but then again, I don’t need to agree with a documentary to think it’s worthwhile to see. Citizenfour is a must-see documentary for everyone. No matter what you think of Snowden – whether you think he’s a hero or a villain – you may well find your view of him challenged throughout the film – and that alone makes this one of the year’s best documentaries.  

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