If you watched the news on TV or read coverage last fall, you saw that one picture of Edward Snowden over and over again: bespectacled, a little harried and focused.
It’s a sign of just how involved director Laura Poitras was in the Snowden story that the picture is, for all intents and purposes, a still from “Citizenfour,” Poitras’ riveting account of how she connected with Snowden, introduced him to journalist Glenn Greenwald, and helped to bring his damning revelations about the National Security Agency, and its violation of the privacy of U.S. citizens, to a global audience.
Whether or not you support Snowden’s methods and his actions, including his release of classified documents — and there are many who do not — the real story here is what he has to say about how our government has used the War on Terror as an excuse to spy on its citizenry in a full-bore, unfiltered manner.
Poitras is no stranger to controversy: her documentaries “My Country, My Country” (about the Iraq War) and “The Oath” (about Guantanamo) placed her on the NSA’s Watch List, guaranteeing that she gets pulled out of line every time she travels internationally. Even operating under this level of scrutiny, however, she was able to communicate secretly with Snowden (calling himself “citizenfour”) online, and once the two of them could suss each other out, they began trading information, eventually meeting in person.
Bringing Greenwald, a journalist for The Guardian, into the equation rocketed Snowden’s story into the zeitgeist, but Poitras was there all along, shooting the two of them, interviewing them, and exploring the facts and information that Snowden was sharing.
“Citizenfour” finds its strength in both the story and the telling: The information about government spying is chilling, of course, but the movie also gives us the opportunity to get to know the elusive Snowden. Far from the bomb-throwing anarchist some of his foes would have you believe, the contractor (his employer Booz Allen Hamilton loaned him out to the government) comes off as measured, thoughtful, and committed to whistle-blowing rather than to misguided publicity or random treason.
Snowden’s soft-spokenness is matched by Poitras’ directorial style; unlike so many contemporary documentaries, which seem to think that the audience will doze off if they don’t throw in animated graphs and comedic montages, “Citizenfour” feels more akin to the detached, fly-on-the-wall style of Frederick Wiseman. Poitras trusts the material and the personalities to carry the film and never feels the need to stand between her viewers and her subject, waving her arms.
A call to arms, rather, is more what “Citizenfour” is after, demanding that we put aside our thoughts about the person telling the story so that we can focus on the story itself. (The current narrative film “Kill the Messenger” attempts to address the same idea, far less successfully.) Whether we think of Snowden as a hero or as a blackguard, it doesn’t change the fundamental nature of what he has revealed, and of what’s happening with our electronic records and footprints in the post-9/11 era.
“When we lose privacy, we lose liberty itself” is quoted throughout the film, and it becomes a rallying cry for the audience to consider the implications of what’s being done to us in the name of what’s being done for us.