The story of Edward Snowden provoked a whirlwind of controversy as the world watched in awe. The United States’ Big Brother-esque NSA spying program became the focus of conversation as almost every country in the world recoiled at the extent of the surveillance practices by the U.S. Citing national security, the United States continued to defend the program until the second shoe hit: The NSA had been spying on innocent Americans. When this information leaked to the public, the whistleblower was revealed to be an inside man named Edward Snowden.
Aside from the news coverage of the event, not much is known about Edward Snowden. And so begins Laura Poitras’s documentary film, “Citizenfour.”
There has always been a distinct unreliability associated with the screening of a documentary. After all, how can documentary hide personal bias when the camera shoots from the director’s point of view? Poitras makes an effective narrative decision to embrace this inherent subjectivity by focusing on her personal interaction with Edward Snowden and the stories that follow.
Although her bias shows through the first-person inter-titles throughout the film, this subjectivity never seems to take anything away from the film. She is, in fact, a seasoned documentarian, and “Citizenfour” represents the final movie in her trilogy about post-9/11 America.
Poitras begins her tale with a dark screen and a streak of light (perhaps the light that will guide her to the ultimate truth). She calmly narrates her correspondence with Citizenfour, a mysterious figure who merely wants to leak information for the public good. We follow this correspondence partly in the dark and partly aware that when this information leaks, the world will change forever. At least that is how Poitras attempts to paint the situation. Slowly but surely, the film rolls on to unveil more and more about Citizenfour until we reach the big reveal: Citizenfour is Edward Snowden.
Of course, this is not the climax; Poitras chooses to calmly breeze past this revelation and proceeds focus on the manhunt for Snowden. Poitras contrasts images of frantic television reporters wondering when the manhunt will end with shots of Snowden sitting on a bed in a cramped Hong Kong hotel. Snowden knows the government will find him. “I don’t want this to be a story about me,” Snowden remarks as he, two reporters and Poitras discuss how he leaked the documents to the general public.
Snowden is right: the act of secret government surveillance of innocent lives is a phenomenon that eclipses his actions; Snowden is simply the guy who decided to lift the curtain. At the same time, Poitras gives the audience so many close-ups and glimpses of Snowden that you cannot help but feel that he chose to become a martyr for the cause.
And what is this cause? Poitras never really secures an exact answer; she focuses sometimes on debates over privacy versus national security and sometimes on Snowden’s humanity, without ever landing on one specific theme. Perhaps this is the greatest flaw of “Citizenfour”: the film seems to drone on after the documents have been leaked and the aftermath has been recorded.
It’s not until Poitras revisits Snowden to fill him in on the extent of his actions that the film quietly fades to black. Once again, Poitras’ calm demeanor emanates from the screen as the audience finishes the film with an unsettled feeling, fully aware that the ripples of Snowden’s actions are far from over as more information about the NSA’s actions trickles to the public.
While “Citizenfour” has its faults, these imperfections are secondary to the film’s successes. From the beginning, Poitras makes it clear that she wants her audience to think; this is not a film for those who are imagining a dramatic biopic. Instead, watch this film if you wish to learn more about who Edward Snowden is and how he tried to incite change in a system that has been betraying its own citizens for 13 years.
The entire film passes by like a current of electricity as we anticipate the worldwide reaction to the NSA’s leaked documents. Poitras acknowledges and utilizes her own involvement with this global event as the film’s narrative force.
She adopts the camera as her eyes and ears. In this way, Laura Poitras becomes the ultimate documentarian by merely recording everything she sees; she does not try to paint the NSA as an evil villain, but rather uses this film to reopen a debate that seems to have died down since the documents leaked.
Perhaps our society needs to take another look at the illusions we continue to harbor about privacy. Has our collective short attention span allowed us to forget that every keystroke we make is recorded on a database? Have we forgotten that our webcams and microphones can be remotely turned on without our knowledge? Or perhaps we do not want to remind ourselves of this disturbing reality; after all, ignorance is bliss.
“Citizenfour” is now playing at Amherst Cinema.