I love a good documentary. And a good documentary, like any other film genre, is hard to come by. Last year’s heavy-hitters like Blackfish and The Act Of Killing stood out in a pack of less-than-worthy non-fiction pics.
This year, Citizenfour snuck up on me. As in, I hadn’t heard anything about it until I was getting alerts about its premiere at New York Film Festival. And it premiered with a bang.
I’m not sure where I come down on the whole “The NSA is watching” scandal. Is it crazy in scope and lawlessness? Yes, of course. Is it impacting my life on a daily basis? Nope. Will it at some point? Maybe. Even if it never does, isn’t it still wrong and the right of those aware of it to blow the whistle about what’s going on? Yeah, I guess it is.
So maybe I do know where I come down on it. But I digress…
Filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald are the team who connected with whistleblower Edward Snowden and brought his leaked intelligence to the public. The documentary revisits the week they broke this news, and despite everything you’ve read and watched about the scandal, you’ve never heard this side of the story.
What makes the film so undeniably important is the way it straddles the near past, the present and the foreseeable future. The timeline of the film is a scant year and a half, give or take – early 2013 through to this past summer. Everyone remembers the stories as they were first published, the far-reaching programs their reporting brought to light. In Citizenfour, you’re part of Glenn Greenwald’s decision-making process as he has to parse out what to release, when and how. You’re in the room in Hong Kong as they tape the interview with Edward Snowden that will reveal his identity to the world.
I can’t speak to the nuances of the government programs, the kind of data that’s being collected, the ways our government and so many others are or aren’t behaving themselves.
And though this is very much the point of Citizenfour, the film is above all a portrait of a man. A kid, really. Not even 30 when he disclosed what he knew of these programs, Snowden is the focus of the film. Snowden and his motivations, his moods. Confined to his hotel room, Poitras’s camera often lingers on him while Greenwald talks, or observes him from a small distance as he emails with his girlfriend back home. There’s a pensive nature to him in many moments, replaced in others by a clear anxiety around just how deep he’s actually found himself.
It’s this intimacy that sheds new light on the news of the last year, this unfiltered exposure to Snowden’s every expression, every sigh, every raised eyebrow. He’s equally concerned about where he’ll sleep the day he leaves his Hong Kong hotel to meet human rights lawyers and with why he can’t get the cowlick in his hair to behave.
In the tornado of information that blew through the news cycle during the disclosures, it was all too easy to lose sight of the person behind it all. The person. The guy who knew he’d be walking away from his family, his home, his job, his country. The guy who left his girlfriend a note that just said “I’ll be gone for a while,” when he left for Hong Kong, so as not to implicate her in any of what he was about to do.
I don’t know if what he did was right or wrong, if he should’ve gone about it differently or if he should be commended for his bravery. I do know he’s an American like any of us, and he did what he felt he had to in order to be able to sleep at night.
The film wraps up with a look to the future. Greenwald shares with Snowden that he’s in touch with another whistleblower, someone who likely never would’ve come forward were it not for him. And Snowden’s settled in Moscow, where he’s been granted a year of asylum and his girlfriend has moved to be with him. As the credits begin, there’s no indication at all that this is the end of the story, for the country or for Ed Snowden.