Laura Poitras had extraordinary access to Edward Snowden to film key moments in the story of his leaking of classified documents for Citizenfour. We almost feel we're present for the moment of discovery, watching Snowden and Glenn Greenwald get to know each other. Their first awkward interactions in real life, the curtain of internet torn from between them.
We watch Snowden explain the importance of encrypted email and file security to Greenwald, at the time apparently new to their protocols. We see Snowden unplug the telephone in case the NSA are listening in. We see him freeze when the fire alarm then begins to go off repeatedly. We see him don a red hood — his "mantle of power" — to enter information into a laptop. In his hotel room. In Hong Kong. Greenwald watches and you can sense his skepticism. He's almost smirking, on the verge of laughing. Is Snowden being paranoid? Or is this simply standard operating procedure when you're about to share evidence of government surveillance of citizens on the largest scale in the history of the United States. Of the world even.
Seeing Snowden is important. It's been easy for his critics to dismiss him as a traitor and a narcissist, when few people have seen him speak or articulate his reasons for doing what he did. Understanding that any action of human behavior is ripe with multivariate motivating factors, I still think Snowden makes his case concretely and convincingly.
"I am more willing to risk imprisonment or any other negative outcome personally," he says, "than I am willing to risk the curtailment of my intellectual freedom and that of those around me, whom I care for equally as I do for myself."
He says his historic release is "about state power and the people's ability to meaningfully oppose that power." And he worries about us becoming a nation of the "ruling and the ruled" instead of the "elected and the electorate."
At one point, President Obama weighs in with his opinion of Snowden. "Snowden is not a patriot," he says and you have to wonder why he had to use exactly those words, shuttling ammunition to Snowden's loudest critics. After all, Obama didn't have to say, "Snowden is a patriot," either. But the film makes it quite clear that due to the Espionage Act, which would be leveraged against him, Snowden was unable to release the material he did — regardless of what it contained — without being branded a spy by the U.S. government. Not a leaker. Not a whistleblower. A spy. And when Obama argues that Snowden shouldn't have made the leaks, and that the existing review of U.S. surveillance programs would have addressed the issues Snowden raised, that just seems disingenuous. We're to assume the same intelligence community, which has repeatedly lied about its activities before Congress, was going to cooperate with such an investigation and that an honest and transparent conversation would have taken place? I doubt it.
Much has been made of the film's sleek production with some suggesting that it undermines the intended message, presenting Snowden and Greenwald as superheroes or Jason Bourne-like figures for our delectation. It's true, too, that Steven Soderbergh is listed prominently as a producer and the film bears his influence if not his direct imprint. You could argue this is a swing for a greater audience to tell Snowden's story. You could argue it's a pitch for more box office dollars. Either way, you hope the important parts of the story don't get lost in translation.
Poitras also makes efficient use of just two pieces of music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch to serve as the soundtrack for her production. The chilly minimalist fuzz of these pieces perfectly complements the eerie, often empty vibe of the proceedings.
Citizenfour is the third in a trilogy of documentaries Poitras has made on themes related to post-9/11 America. Due to the topics discussed and some of the technology jargon employed, this installment may prove intermittently impenetrable to some viewers. Which is a shame. Realistically, I doubt it'll enjoy broad viewing anyway. Which is a greater shame. Because it deserves to be seen by every American citizen. Especially given a government, which encourages transparency, which says we have nothing to worry about if we have nothing to hide, but then remains staunchly opaque about how it examines the everyday activities of its citizens.