Citizenfour, director Laura Poitras’s immensely detailed and not-so-accessible account of the Edward Snowden data leak, is most important in the context of a historical document. Sometimes mind-numbingly tech-y, but always thrilling in an understated way, the film takes place over eight days during June of 2013. Poitras’s unprecedented access and detailed interviews with Snowden go above and beyond what cable news had to offer at the time. While your opinion of Snowden likely won’t change, Citizenfour is nevertheless compelling, complicated viewing.
For those needing a refresher, Edward Snowden was a contractor working for the NSA. He did work on many of their most top secret projects and had security clearance beyond what many full-time NSA employees have. In January of 2013, Poitras began receiving anonymous, encrypted emails from an individual claiming to have proof that the NSA was illegally spying on its own citizens. The emails were signed “CITIZENFOUR.” After several months of exchanges, a meeting is arranged in June in Hong Kong, China. Poitras, along with reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, discover the identity of mysterious Citizenfour to be Snowden. For eight days, the four plot how and when to release the top secret NSA documents.
It’s not often that you get to see the real-time aftermath of a story as big as this one. Taking place largely within the confines of a Hong Kong hotel room, Poitras sets the camera up and lets the story unfold. Snowden is on screen in various capacities throughout. Always well-spoken and calculated, he repeatedly makes it clear that he knows the ramifications of what he’s doing. He views the leak as necessary to protect the American people from further overreaches by the NSA under the guise of national security. As cable news begins to latch on to the story, he must seek political asylum to avoid being extradited to the U.S. for indictment.
Much of the film concerns reporter Glenn Greenwald attempting to make the story digestible for regular Americans through his reporting for The Guardian. This will be a very difficult and confusing watch for any non-tech-oriented people. Snowden goes into great detail regarding the NSA’s capabilities to intercept and log phone calls, texts, emails, Google searches, and more at data storage centers unlike anything seen before. His revelations carry significant weight as the debate rages as to the extent we’ll tolerate removal of personal privacy under the pretense of national security. Dry yet fascinating, and always carrying an air of hushed immediacy, Citizenfour nicely documents a revelatory piece of recent history.
Length: 114 Minutes
Rating: R for language.
Theatrical Release: October 24, 2014 (Limited)
Directed by: Laura Poitras
Cast: Edward Snowden, Jacob Appelbaum, Julian Assange, William Binney, Glenn Greenwald