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‘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.

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