It is difficult to find meaningful ways to critique Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour. The documentary isn’t simply about Edward Snowden and the events of June 2013, when Snowden became a household name and frequent topic of conversation at dinner tables across America and the globe – the documentary is Edward Snowden. With the exceptions of a 20-minute prologue and 20-minute epilogue, Snowden dominates nearly every moment of screen time, whether it’s him in front of the camera discussing the classified documents he leaked or whether it’s his words on a black screen in the form of encrypted email messages sent to Poitras. Citizenfour doesn’t attempt to recreate the events leading to Snowden’s public downfall – the camera is there with him every second of the way. It is a little like watching the Zapruder footage of the Kennedy assassination – sure, the image may be grainy and imperfect but as you’re watching it, you begin to realize you’re watching not just a film strip but history being made before your eyes.
Much of the media coverage surrounding Snowden has remained ambivalent about his actions as a whistleblower and enemy of the state. Was he a hero for exposing the government’s intrusive surveillance policies, or was he a disgruntled traitor? This chasm within the Snowden narrative is no doubt due in large part to the conflicting public attitudes in the United States; according to one NBC News poll conducted in May 2014, more Americans opposed Snowden’s actions than supported them. But three days later, a poll by Tresorit revealed that 55 percent of respondents felt Snowden was justified in exposing the NSA’s mass data-mining programs. Certainly Snowden would likely find support among libertarians and conspiracy theorists fearful of governmental overreach, but does mere support necessarily translate to exemption from standing trial?
There is no such ambiguity in Citizenfour; it is clear from the very opening moments of the film that Poitras and her colleagues believe the CIA has overextended its powers and Snowden’s actions, however unlawful they were, may represent the only forcible means of resistance to NSA. And yet what makes Citizenfour so compelling is that in spite of Poitras’ allegiance to Snowden (an allegiance which granted her closer access to Snowden than practically anyone else on the planet), there remain many unanswered questions about Snowden, the leaked documents, NSA policy, and just how massive a surveillance network is at the control of a few select individuals in great positions of political and military power. Poitras does not overtly attempt to sway viewers into sympathizing with Snowden; instead, one walks away from Citizenfour with the distinct impression that Snowden represents only one relatively minor pawn in a giant maelstrom that, unless stopped, will produce many more troubling pieces to come.
The opening of the film introduces a collage of several major figures and events leading up to the Snowden leaks. We witness a federal case in San Francisco where a government lawyer cloyingly argues the NSA is not required to be held accountable at a judicial level since its operations must remain classified. We briefly meet William Binney, a former technical director for the NSA who is now its most outspoken critic. We see Occupy Wall Street meeting, where protestors are told to limit their use of credit cards and metro passes because they contain data which can be monitored and tracked by authorities. The point of these scenes, I think, is to illustrate that Snowden’s actions were not unprecedented and did not emerge out of a vacuum – that the cultural climate (not too many years removed from the Patriot Act) was already rife with skepticism that the internet truly provided privacy and a democratic platform for free speech.
Citizenfour shows that what made the Snowden leaks so staggering were two major points: First, that they linked NSA surveillance directives with the complicit actions of giant telecoms such as Verizon and AT&T representing millions of consumers; and second, that they contradicted virtually everything the NSA had said about its surveillance programs in sworn testimony before Congress (we see excerpts from this now-infamous exchange). Furthermore, Snowden’s leaks showed that the NSA’s power was recklessly unchecked and uncalled for, given that 90 percent of citizens surveyed represented no significant safety or terrorist threat. And most troublesome of all, the leaks contained President Obama’s explicit seal of approval.
But generally speaking, this is the stuff we already know. What Citizenfour offers is a firsthand look at the seven days in June 2013 in a cramped Hong Kong hotel room, when Snowden agreed to meet in secret with Poitras and two journalists, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. For the first couple of days, no one is really sure what to do. Snowden talks a little about his background at the NSA and explains the inner-workings of a few of the NSA’s most sophisticated and vast mining programs. The four agree that at some point during the week the leaks will have to go public through Wikileaks, but after that happens, no one is sure what will happen next. In frank discussions, they consider the difficulties in revealing Snowden’s identity; while they accept his inevitable legal repercussions, they agree that once Snowden becomes the public face of the leaks, U.S. authorities will strategically shift the focus away from the NSA and toward a menial personality examination.
So what exactly do we learn about Edward Snowden? Very little, in fact. We learn he was born into a military family in North Carolina, but was raised in Maryland, that he held a variety of positions within the CIA and had top-level clearance, and that he is worried about his girlfriend’s well-being. He wears a white tee-shirt most of the time and sits on his bed. He looks painfully normal. He unplugs the phone in the room and puts a towel over his head on occasion. In one incredible sequence, the hotel fire alarm begin to sound and Snowden and Greenwald anticipate authorities bursting into the room (we later find out that it was only a fire drill). He has a lot to say about the NSA and after being asked why he engaged in the leaks, he appears genuine in his insistence that he cares about average Americans and the threat of government surveillance to the foundations of a democratic society. He is not an anarchist or a terrorist or an ideologue, just a normal guy who gradually became very cynical about the work he did without the ability to critically probe why he was really doing it.
But is Edward Snowden really that selfless and heroic? Let’s forget the obligatory high-minded rhetoric from John Kerry and others about being a traitor to the United States for a moment. As I watched the film, I found myself wondering what other motivations, if any, led Snowden to leak the NSA’s classified information and, in effect, ending his life in the United States. Although you never get the sense in Citizenfour that Snowden is sniffing for a book deal or appearance on Oprah, something undeniably seems unsettling about him. I found myself wondering why it was him and not someone else chose to come forward with this information. Why did it take so long? What is the real reason behind the reluctance to talk about himself, and why doesn’t he mention any channels he went through within the NSA chain of command? Isn’t one of the lessons of this cynical postmodern world that everyone has a price and a bottom line? And yet in that initial skepticism, I found myself wondering if that wasn’t precisely what the U.S. government wants me to think about Edward Snowden. It’s always easier to place blame on the public actions of a single individual rather than the classified actions of anonymous ones.
Citizenfour includes only peripheral references to Obama. Snowden talks about his personal disappointment at the President and toward the end of the film, we see a brief clip of Obama admitting that while the Snowden’s questions were valid, his methods were not. Of course, what Obama excludes from this statement is events such as the San Francisco federal court case at the beginning of the film, where the plaintiffs attempted to use legal channels to file complaints with the government, but were ultimately unsuccessful (even when they received the support of judges). Also overlooked is if tried in the United States, Snowden would be charged with violating the Espionage Act, a grossly overinclusive, vague, and virtually indefensible charge stemming from World War I. Why hasn’t Obama overturned (or at least attempt to overturn) this anachronistic and censorious mandate? Although he is not intended to be the direct center of blame, Obama comes off worse in this film than Dinesh D’Souza and anyone at Fox News could have ever hoped for. As an Obama voter in 2008 and 2012, the events depicted in Citizenfour are extremely disheartening and will leave a permanent tarnish on a once-hopeful presidential legacy.
Poitras states at the beginning that Citizenfour is the third part of a trilogy examining America after 9/11. Snowden reached out to her after seeing the first film in her trilogy, My Country, My Country (2006). Poitras is never seen on camera nor does she speak, but the written narration informs us she is now under strict surveillance by the Department of Homeland Security. Snowden is of course in Russia and will be forced in all likelihood to stay there indefinitely. How this film was ever produced and released by a major distributor (HBO Films) for a national theatrical release – keeping in mind the security risks associated with Snowden and Poitras – is beyond me. All I know is that somehow miraculously, Citizenfour exists in complete form as a great documentary and public record of history for everyone to see. And it should be the duty of every American to see it.
Rating: 4 stars