Film Review: ‘Citizenfour’

'Citizenfour' Review: Laura Poitras' Extraordinary Edward

Information is a weapon that cuts both ways in Laura Poitras' extraordinary portrait of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

No amount of familiarity with whistleblower Edward Snowden and his shocking revelations of the U.S. government’s wholesale spying on its own citizens can prepare one for the impact of Laura Poitras’ extraordinary documentary “Citizenfour.” Far from reconstructing or analyzing a fait accompli, the film tersely records the deed in real time, as Poitras and fellow journalist Glenn Greenwald meet Snowden over an eight-day period in a Hong Kong hotel room to plot how and when they will unleash the bombshell that shook the world. Adapting the cold language of data encryption to recount a dramatic saga of abuse of power and justified paranoia, Poitras brilliantly demonstrates that information is a weapon that cuts both ways. The much-anticipated docu opens Oct. 24, after fest screenings in New York and London.

“Citizenfour” reps the final installment of the Oscar-nominated Poitras’ trilogy on post-9/11 America (following 2006’s “My Country, My Country” and 2010’s “The Oath”). She was already two years deep into a film about surveillance when contacted by the pseudonymous “Citizenfour,” who sought her help in exposing proof of the government’s indiscriminate gathering and processing of U.S. citizens’ emails, cell-phone conversations, bank accounts and digital transactions. Chosen because she herself had withstood countless invasive acts of targeted surveillance, Poitras quickly agreed. She then convinced Snowden, who had already decided to reveal his identity once his info was safely delivered, to be filmed.

Snowden makes clear that he lacks both the desire and the competence to decide which information to make public; rather, he believes, it is the job of the journalists to whom he transmits the data (Poitras, Greenwald and, to a lesser degree, U.K. intelligence journalist Ewen MacAskill) to avoid releasing any documents that could compromise national security. Snowden voices deep concerns that “personality journalism” may wind up making him the story, rather than his revelations. If he hides, speculation about his identity will dominate the conversation. But if he reveals himself, how can he avoid becoming the media’s diversionary target? As it turns out, his apprehensions are well justified, as Snowden becomes a more visible presence and talked-about phenomenon than the NSA betrayal that so profoundly touched billions of lives.

Poitras skillfully avoids casting Snowden as either her hero or the determining focus of her story, instead portraying him as a fascinating, calm, utterly sincere gatherer of unwelcome information whose scientific brain collates and analyzes data with an odd combination of cool distance and deep-seated paranoia (sometimes manifested by his hiding under a blanket, which he ironically dubs his “mantle of power,” while accessing sensitive data). Poitras affords him a surprising amount of privacy within the frame, showing him quietly typing away on his computer or staring out the window at the city of Hong Kong.

Like Poitras herself, Snowden fully accepts the possible repercussions of his actions on his personal well-being, even while actively seeking to avoid them. His biggest moments of vulnerability concern Lindsay Mills, the longtime girlfriend he left behind in Hawaii and whom he kept uninformed in an attempt to protect her. A later cozy scene of kitchen domesticity, fleetingly glimpsed through a back window, attests to their successful reunion in Russia.

Poitras contrasts the gaudy, graphics-heavy nature of the news exploding on the hotel-room TV screen with her own weighty establishing shots of the locales through which she and her band of co-conspirators pass as they evaluate and disseminate Snowden’s evidence (Poitras herself resides in Berlin, while Greenwald and his three dogs happily dwell in Rio de Janeiro). The courtrooms, newspaper offices and foreign governmental committee rooms where the disclosures are discussed and analyzed take on a physical rootedness very different from the shadowy, abstractions of espionage (evoked by Poitras’ strong use of white-on-black title cards and a mysteriously repeated shot of white lights strung like Morse code against the blackness of the night, only later recognized as the tunnel through which the helmer drove to arrive at her initial assignation with Snowden).

Once Snowden goes undercover, Greenwald becomes the public promulgator of his legacy, holding press conferences and appearing before committees abroad. Wheelchair-bound William Binney, who designed much of the infrastructure for automating the NSA’s worldwide surveillance network before his deep misgivings about the program caused him to quit, likewise barnstorms the globe, warning of loss of liberty (Poitras isolates him in a stunning overhead long shot as he wheels himself into the German Parliament, following the scoop that the NSA monitored Chancellor Angela Merkel’s communications).

“Citizenfour” unexpectedly ends in startling, quasi-comic dumbshow fashion in Moscow, as Greenwald reveals to a goggle-eyed Snowden the as-yet undisclosed revelations of an even higher-up whistleblower by scribbling words on scraps of paper, promptly read, digested, and just sporadically caught by the camera. The papers are then torn into small squares, with only the word “Potus” clearly visible. Whether this coda records fact or theatricalizes unrealistic speculation remains unclear.

Film Review: 'Citizenfour'

Reviewed at New York Film Festival, Oct. 10, 2014.  (Also in London Film Festival.) Running time: 113 MIN.


(Documentary — U.S.-Germany) A Radius-TWC (in U.S.) release of a Praxis Films production in association with Participant Media, HBO Documentary Films in co-production with Bertha Foundation Britdoc Circle, Channel 4, Norddeutscher Rundfunk, Bayischer Rundfunk. Produced by Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy, Dirk Wilutzky. Executive producers, Steven Soderbergh, Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, David Menschel, Tom Quinn, Sheila Nevins. Co-producers, Katy Scoggin, Kirsten Johnson.


Directed by Laura Poitras. Camera (color, HD), Kirsten Johnson, Katy Scoggin, Trevor Paglen; editor, Mathilde Bonnefoy; sound, Laura Poitras, Judy Karp; sound designer, Frank Kruse; re-recording mixer, Matthias Lempert.


Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Ewen Macaskill, Jacob Applebaum, Jeremy Scahill. (English, Portuguese dialogue)

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  1. Luis says:

    To think this documentary won an Oscar?!?!? You’ll be better off watching PBS Documentary Series “Nova” on Cyberwar, which features Edward Snowden but also gives you MORE information about the reach of this surveillance program, interviews with other people related to the system, as well as analysis and conclusions on the subject, on the other hand “Citizenfour” is all about Edward Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel room, so we get a lot of long shots of him doing his hair, sleeping, and kinda just “hanging out”, with very little information and analysis about the actual capabilities of the data gathering program… 0 Stars!!

  2. George Bell says:

    REVELATION!!! There is something we can do, try;- “”.

  3. kathydasilva says:

    ..Cont’d ..makes reading Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide worth a second read…it’s a lot easier to take in just what has happened in the last year since the whistle blow occurred. I think everyone deserves the right to see this film at least once.

  4. kathydasilva says:

    Very interesting documentary, when you feel you may have read it ‘all’, this pulls out some items that seem maybe missed amidst all the printed reports….the name POTUS means President of the United States in code. Also Bude in Cornwall has a site for collecting the calls of mobile phones in our ‘fair’ land in our midst, this is all going on, the collection of all calls not just suspects of terror. Quite an appalling situation the lack of trust generally. And is it all necessary or is it just a lazy approach let the computer do the work. Many questions will be generated by Laura Poitrus’ film many. Makes Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide

  5. joe swope says:

    Why has no one gone to jail or even been put on trial for breaking our laws on a citizens right for privacy and civil liberties? This goes for all those in the NSA-CIA-MILITARY-HOMELAND SECURITY and all the other spy agencies. Maybe because this goes all the way up to the CONGRESS-SENATE-SUPREME COURT and WHITE HOUSE. Also this goes for all those in WALL STREET and all the BANKING institutions,MILITARY COMPLEX,big CORPORATIONS many GLOBAL- who’s money,power and greed, now control much of the USA and world.

  6. LOL says:

    Snowden and Chelsea Elizabeth Manning are American heroes. History will judge them as saints not sinners.

    God Bless America.

  7. Jim says:

    Why is Daniel Ellsberg a hero and Edward Snowden a villain?

  8. Michael Anthony says:

    Sorry, but the entire Snowden saga makes me sick. And I’m not alone with that sentiment. Most troubling of all is his reasons for his actions. He turned into a hypocrite by asking Russia for help. He’s so troubled by the US actions, yet he has no problem asking for help from the likes of Putin. Sorry, but u lost alit of support by doing that.

    • Snowman says:

      Whatever your views on Snowden, it doesn’t change the fact that the NSA are acting like criminals and that countless officials have been lying under oath to congress. When those activities are stopped and those crimlnals are in jail, we can talk about Snowden.

    • erik26 says:

      That’s not how that works. People escape to the US from foreign powers, do we question why they are coming to a country that kills so many civilians in drone strikes? No. When you are on the run from the most powerful nation, you don’t have a big menu of options. We trapped him in Russia, let’s be clear about that. He wanted to get to South America when we decided to start grounding presidential planes and revoking passports.

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