"Citizenfour" is a real life thriller, unfolding by the minute, giving audiences unprecedented access to Laura Poitras, Ewen MacAskill and Glenn Greenwald's encounters with Edward Snowden in Hong Kong, as he hands over classified documents providing evidence of mass indiscriminate and illegal invasions of privacy by the National Security Agency (NSA). Poitras had already been working on a film about surveillance for two years when Snowden contacted her, using the name "Citizenfour", in January 2013. He reached out to her because he knew she had long been a target of government surveillance, stopped at airports numerous times, and had refused to be intimidated. When Snowden revealed he was a high-level analyst driven to expose the massive surveillance of Americans by the NSA, Poitras persuaded him to let her film. "Citizenfour" places you in the room with Poitras, MacAskill, Greenwald, and Snowden as they attempt to manage the media storm raging outside, forced to make quick decisions that will impact their lives and all of those around them. "Citizenfour" not only shows you the dangers of governmental surveillance - it makes you feel them. After seeing the film, you will never think the same way about your phone, email, credit card, web browser, or profile, ever again.
True grittiness personified: as we follow Edward Snowden’s rise to stardom told through the lenses of director Laura Poitras, penned by journalists Glen Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and Barton Gellman in a hotel room in Hong Kong, June, 2013.
Citizenfour is a documentary of a rare breed – one without obvious antagonists, goals or moral parables. It doesn’t try to teach you anything, least of what’s right or wrong, where the classical “show, don’t tell” is replaced with “tell, don’t overkill” – and such approach yields for a stunning revealing testimony. Poitras meticulously edited the material to show the truth as it unraveled real-time, and one can almost sense the looming presence of a cyber-entity, waiting to bring order (moreover: damage control) in the chaos of what Snowden is about to unleash – the entity that would later become the infamous NSA.
The director’s decision to let people speak for themselves while omitting all commentary (except for several messages at the start), undoubtedly proves as the right approach, and as tension slowly pumps blood in the arteries of all parties involved, Snowden never loses his cool and elaborates proofs that send shivers in the viewers’ crackling spines. Sometimes even the silence speaks volumes of what is about to happen, and it usually topples whichever revelation came before it.
The story is one well known – elevated to become an integral part of current American pop-culture, but still: Citizenfour surprises when you least expect it; it is a deadly waltz between the hunter and hunted with unpredictable outcomes and uncertain, ambivalent character motivations. Is Greenwald trying to get the truth, or advance his career forward? Why does Poitras get to film the whole ordeal as it happens? Is Snowden a traitor, a hero, or neither?
His room (a hotel in Hong Kong) slowly transforms into an unnerving setting – each consecutive encounter with the journalists raises bets, apostrophizing the risk of getting caught at any given time. As he realizes the point of no return, verbal communication boils down to a minimum – instead, an old fashioned pen and paper is used. In a world where the watchmen go unwatched – you cannot trust anyone.
Then there’s the techno-talk. Despite the urge to try and not understand the ongoing conversations between Greenwald, Snowden and Poitras, one does – and that’s what scares the most. It is obviously clear the national security has been breached: and it must have something to do with encryption and computers. Since everyone uses such devices, it means no one is safe anymore.
Citizenfour, the name under which Edward Snowden contacted Laura Poitras, is not non-fiction, not even a real documentary. It’s a testimony of a state agent-turned-whistleblower, who realized his obligations to the universal freedom of speech to be bigger than the papers he signed when getting the job he later exposed. It raises more questions than giving answers, and shows UK’s role as a catalyst of conducting USA’s unauthorized tapping program. And symptomatically enough, USA’s biggest adversary – Russia – offers Snowden a safe haven through political asylum.
Citizenfour is perhaps the biggest real thriller of 2014.