Filmmaker Laura Poitras had unprecedented access to one of the biggest news stories of our young century: Edward Snowden’s release of domestic and foreign surveillance conducted by the United States after Sept. 11, 2001.
Poitras was discovered by Snowden through her prior documentary work, earning her government watch-list status.
They were kindred spirits. Snowden was a National Security Agency defense contractor who needed a journalist with more than rudimentary knowledge about encryption and surveillance. The more prominently known Glenn Greenwald wasn’t savvy enough and didn’t pass through Snowden’s anonymous communication as “citizenfour.”
Already working on a film about surveillance, Poitras eventually persuaded Snowden to meet in person, which led to a Hong Kong hotel room with Greenwald accompanying. The rest is history, and the journalism produced through Snowden’s leaks led to a Pulitzer Prize for everyone involved.
What makes “Citizenfour” remarkable is witnessing three intelligent people work together to get the information out.
Snowden is keenly aware of how the potential media coverage of his personality risks overshadowing the vital, disturbing information he holds. (And there’s a ton of information. From its June 2013 release to present day, Snowden’s vast trove of intelligence access is still providing revelations.)
Snowden, age 29 during filming, grew up with the Internet in its nascent origin as the emerging standard in communication. When he wistfully describes how in the early years a child could have a discussion with a doctor or expert through the web, you realize how vital the Internet was in Snowden’s intellectual development.
Greenwald is as egoless as the public face requires for this story, and he shows understandable concern for Snowden. Both subjects go to extraordinary lengths to protect themselves despite comprehending their necessary public role.
After Snowden goes underground, Poitras shifts the film’s focus to the aftermath of the information released. Her observational cinema approach hits some rough spots in this closing section because some narrative context is needed. The closing scene, a reunion between Greenwald and Snowden, deliberately avoids pronouns and shows how their roles switched. But it also seems intended to leave you paranoid to the point of immobilization.
Despite this flaw, “Citizenfour” is a useful introduction to the role of modern media; our concepts of freedom and privacy; how government intelligence functions and defends itself; and what else it pursues beyond the assumed terrorist threats.