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.