'Citizenfour' Is Invaluable Cinéma Vérité

I welcome Oliver Stone’s forthcoming biopic about Snowden with an open mind, but I doubt that it will surpass the riveting realism of Citizenfour.


Director: Laura Poitras
Distributor: Anchor Bay
Studio: Praxis Films, Participant Media, HBO Documentary Films
US Release Date: 2015-08-25

After Citizenfour (2014) won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, host Neil Patrick Harris quipped that whistleblower Edward Snowden couldn’t attend the ceremony “for some treason”. Despite Harris’ humorous intent, his throwaway line wasn’t well-received. Snowden’s unknown fate strikes a chord, and for many American citizens, it’s not a laughing matter.

Harris’ remark calls attention to an ongoing public debate about whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. Did he courageously risk his life to expose corruption at the highest levels of government, or did he cowardly turn on the American government and threaten national security interests in the process? One’s appreciation of Citizenfour depends on one’s answer to this question.

However, Harris’ treason joke isn’t just about Snowden. It also alludes to the Obama administration’s controversial use of the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers. (See "Charting Obama’s Crackdown on National Security leaks", by Cora Currier, ProPublica, 30 July 2013) In many cases, whistleblowers like Snowden break the law to expose corruption and illegal behavior in the most powerful American institutions. Is it fair to brand them “traitors” and charge them with the serious crime of espionage, or should the American government consider the circumstances and show some restraint? Again, one’s appreciation of Citizenfour depends on one’s answer to this question.

The Snowden disclosures have captured the zeitgeist, and it’s likely that 2016 presidential candidates will repeatedly be asked about them. Not surprisingly, establishment candidates like Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton have already condemned Snowden, while anti-establishment libertarians like Rand Paul and progressives like Bernie Sanders have supported him.

It’s a testament to Snowden’s influence that the relationship between privacy, surveillance, and national security is one of the most prominent political issues today. Snowden single-handedly changed the conversation in Washington. Citizenfour tells the story of how it all began.

In January 2013, documentarian Laura Poitras received an encrypted email from an anonymous user who called himself “Citizen Four”. In the email, Citizen Four informed Poitras that he had information about the U.S. National Security Agency’s illegal spying program, among other important revelations. In June 2013, Poitras, investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, and intelligence reporter Ewan MacAskill went to a Hong Kong hotel to secretly meet Citizen Four. Poitras decided to bring along her camera. The rest, as they say, is history.

The best thing about Citizenfour is its structure. We know that Snowden is Citizen Four, but it’s thrilling to watch Poitras and her colleagues question the legitimacy of the initial email exchanges. They’re skeptical in the beginning, as any reporters would be. However, when Snowden introduces himself in the hotel and reveals the classified documents in his possession, they quickly realize what they’ve gotten themselves into. In these moments, they aren’t thinking about the Pulitzer Prize. They’re thinking about their safety and the safety of this stranger in front of them, a stranger they will have to defend for the rest of their lives.

Citizenfour steps away from the sensationalism to show the people behind the disclosures. We hear Snowden explain why he wants to disclose the classified documents. We listen to discussions about the practicalities of which documents to disclose, when to disclose them, and where to publish them. We sense Snowden’s fear and anxiety after the disclosures go viral. We follow the journalists as they fight to protect their source on cable news programs. We watch, and like Snowden, we wait for something to happen.

However, we don’t simply watch Snowden as he awaits his fate in an empty hotel room. We watch history unfold before our very eyes. Poitras risked her safety to shoot this footage, and the risk was worth it. For the first time in what feels like a very long time, a documentary filmmaker has captured an important historical moment in real time for the rest of the world to witness. When someone studies the Snowden disclosures in the future, that person may come upon this film and sees how the events played out from Snowden’s perspective. It’s easy to forget how rare that is.

Most documentaries about a historical event are made after it has occurred. Filmmakers in these cases are at the mercy of archival footage and present day interviews, and they use what they can to reconstruct a sense of the past. Poitras’ camera, by contrast, was present to record the conversations that Snowden had with the journalists before the disclosures, and to follow Snowden’s every move immediately after the disclosures. This is invaluable cinéma vérité. I welcome Oliver Stone’s forthcoming biopic about Snowden with an open mind, but I doubt that it will surpass the riveting realism of Citizenfour.

Those who purchase the Blu-ray have access to three deleted scenes. The first two are extended conversations with Snowden, and the third is a brief clip of Greenwald surfing NSA websites on his laptop. Also included is an hour long TimesTalk with Poitras, Greenwald, Snowden, and David Carr, as well as a Q & A with Poitras that was conducted at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The final bonus feature is “The Program”, a New York Times op-ed doc by Poitras about NSA whistleblower William Binney. These supplements, with the exception of the deleted scenes, are already on the Internet.

It’s hard to believe that anyone outside of the US government still views Snowden in a negative light, especially after NSA’s phone spying program was ruled illegal by the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals. (See "NSA's phone spying program ruled illegal by appeals court", by Jonathan Stempel, Reuters, 7 May 2015) However, even Snowden’s most ardent critics must acknowledge that Citizenfour portrays a whistleblower whose intentions are in the right place.

Contrary to the claims of some establishment pundits and politicians, Snowden does not come across as a vindictive person who wants to punish the US government for thrills. He’s a concerned citizen who cares about the Constitution, saw it violated by the US government, and felt responsible to tell the American people. The messenger is not to blame for the message. Any debate about the Snowden disclosures must begin with this acknowledgement.






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