‘Citizenfour’ Leads Doc Race, But Oscar Won’t Be Easy

In a year with few front-runners, Laura Poitras’s “Citizenfour” seems destined to win a slew of critics awards. The Edward Snowden documentary has been a media darling since its New York Film Fest debut; critics have given it a 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes; and it was anointed with an International Documentary Assn. nomination, while many good films were shut out.

However, its Oscar chances are iffier. The 210 filmmakers in the Academy’s documentary branch look at things differently than critics, reporters and festgoers.

Last year, Alex Gibney’s “We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks” and Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “Blackfish” failed to earn nominations (the well-regarded “Wikileaks” didn’t even make the short list) despite critical acclaim. The 2013 award eventually went to back-up singer pic “20 Feet from Stardom,” and the year before, “Searching for Sugar Man,” another terrific music docu, took home the Oscar. Which begs the question–is there a certain pattern Acad voters like to follow for feature docs?

Some consider every Oscar nomination or snub to be a socio-political statement, meaning a nomination for “Citizenfour” is an endorsement of a known U.S. fugitive. Conversely, a non-nomination would be seen as another example of Hollywood’s head-in-the-sand timidity. Toward the end of the film, a group of attorneys mull their defense of Snowden and one says the issue will be 95% politics and 5% legal. That percentage will hold true for awards as well.

But “Citizenfour” goes beyond the hot-button; it isn’t a well-made documentary in the traditional sense but the film has a vantage point and urgency that are unique. Half of the two-hour running time is set in the Hong Kong hotel room when Snowden was talking to the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald for eight days. Poitras, who last helmed the 2010 documentary “The Oath,” wasn’t just a filmmaker who happened to get great access. She is a participant, as Snowden consults with her and Greenwald about how much NSA information to divulge, and when to reveal his identity.

Poitras knew that her participation would mean increased surveillance, harassment and possible arrest. For that alone, the Academy’s docu-makers should be empathetic and appreciative.

And the film raises serious modern questions about terrorism, security, and the role of corporations in a world where digital access is pervasive; it also addresses spin control, as one person observes that the word “privacy” is an attempt to trivialize the concept of basic liberties. And yes, it asks whether Snowden is a patriot or traitor, with the film clearly sympathetic to him.

Radius-TWC’s “Citizenfour” is joined in this year’s docu race by fellow IDA contenders “Finding Vivian Maier,” “Point and Shoot,” “The Salt of the Earth” and “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” as well as IDA no-shows like “Merchants of Doubt” and the Roger Ebert docu “Life Itself.”

The biggest question for a hot piece of intel like “Citizenfour,” which has also been floated as a best picture contender, is whether Oscar voters are willing to download it.

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Samuel-W.-Gelfman

    Samuel Gelfman, Roger Corman Film Producer, Dies at 88

    Samuel Gelfman, a New York producer known for his work on Roger Corman’s “Caged Heat,” “Cockfighter” and “Cannonball!,” died Thursday morning at UCLA Hospital in Westwood following complications from heart and respiratory disease, his son Peter Gelfman confirmed. He was 88. Gelfman was born in Brooklyn, New York and was raised in Caldwell New Jersey [...]

  • Margot Robbie stars in ONCE UPON

    Box Office: 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Pulls Ahead of 'Hobbs & Shaw' Overseas

    Sony’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” might not have hit No. 1 in North America, but Quentin Tarantino’s latest film is leading the way at the international box office, where it collected $53.7 million from 46 markets. That marks the best foreign opening of Tarantino’s career, coming in ahead of 2012’s “Django Unchained.” “Once [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Leads Crowded Weekend With $21 Million

    The Bean Bag Boys, the self-appointed nickname for the trio of best friends in Universal’s “Good Boys,” are conquering much more than sixth grade. They are also leading the domestic box office, exceeding expectations and collecting $21 million on opening weekend. “Good Boys,” which screened at 3,204 North American theaters, is a much-needed win for [...]

  • Amanda Awards

    ‘Out Stealing Horses’ Tops Norway’s 2019 Amanda Awards

    HAUGESUND, Norway —  Hans Petter Moland’s sweeping literary adaptation “Out Stealing Horses” put in a dominant showing at Norway’s Amanda Awards on Saturday night, placing first with a collected five awards, including best Norwegian film. Celebrating its 35th edition this year, the Norwegian industry’s top film prize helped kick off the Haugesund Film Festival and [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Richard Williams, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Animator, Dies at 86

    Renowned animator Richard Williams, best known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” died Friday at his home in Bristol, England, Variety has confirmed. He was 86. Williams was a distinguished animator, director, producer, author and teacher whose work has garnered three Oscars and three BAFTA Awards. In addition to his groundbreaking work as [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Eyes Best Original Comedy Opening of 2019

    Universal’s “Good Boys” is surpassing expectations as it heads toward an estimated $20.8 million opening weekend at the domestic box office following $8.3 million in Friday ticket sales. That’s well above earlier estimates which placed the film in the $12 million to $15 million range, marking the first R-rated comedy to open at No. 1 [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content