Citizenfour: Truth and Consequences

Laura Poitras’ cool, controlled documentary Citizenfour provides an up-close-andpersonal look at Edward Snowden, the whistle-blower who revealed the National Security Agency’s (unconstitutional, ahem) internet surveillance programs of citizens in 2013, sparking worldwide controversy and debate that rages to this day.

Poitras, whose previous films include the Oscar-nominated My Country, My Country (2006) and the acclaimed The Oath (2010) – both of which took a hard look at the US war on terrorism – was queried online by a sender called “Citizenfour” who turned out to be Snowden, an American-born (North Carolina, in fact) computer expert who offered proof of the NSA’s illicit actions.

Accompanied by reporter Glenn Greenwald, Poitras met with Snowden in Hong Kong, basically permitting the source of the story to tell the story himself, in his own words.

Poitras’ cameras are there when Greenwald’s stories are published and news outlets start following up on them. Her cameras are rolling as Snowden goes from expatriate to fugitive right before our eyes, sitting in a hotel room in watching TV as the coverage and controversy escalate before his eyes.

Is Snowden a hero or a traitor? There’s never any doubt which side of the argument Citizenfour’s on. For one thing, it’s highly and hugely unlikely that any current representatives from intelligence communities would consent to be interviewed, and there’s indeed a subtle but palpable emphasis on the efforts to obfuscate the issue by painting Snowden in the most negative light possible, including by some major media outlets.

Poitras’ cameras, it seems, are everywhere: London, Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong, Berlin, Moscow, and back and forth. The film is dense with information and revelations but never difficult to follow, although the low-key, languid pacing and occasional stylistic touches seem a trifle misplaced. In this case, tighter might have been punchier and more effective.

However, there’s no question that Citizenfour is an important film, and a timely one. The issues it raises are ones that demand to be looked into, no matter which side of the argument you’re on.