A cool, steady stream of anxiety, Laura Poitras’ documentary Citizenfour draws from the visual language and buggy paranoia of the best-known 1970s political thrillers: The Conversation, The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men. Each of the cities filmed in Citizenfour gets its own quiet yet sinister establishing shot, so that Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong and London each look like twinkly beehives of undisclosed activity.
The movie’s completely in the bag for its subject, Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked classified documents in spring 2013. On camera, Snowden resembles a cross between Seth Rogen’s better-behaved cousin and the lean, owly film director Steven Soderbergh, an executive producer of Citizenfour. The NSA documents revealed the known knowns regarding the U.S. government’s secret collection of Verizon customer information and the extent to which the NSA yanked user data out of the allegedly secure realms of Google, Facebook, YouTube and other information-aggregating time-sucks.
Poitras is not a fulminator or spewer of agitprop. She lets the agitation simmer and tones down the obvious propaganda in both directions. Many call Snowden a traitor; by current laws, he’s certainly a criminal. Others hail his actions as heroic correctives to the surveillance abuses perpetrated in the name of national security. “I already know how this will end for me,” Snowden mutters early on, suggesting the forces he’s up against. (For now, he’s in Russia with his girlfriend.)
Citizenfour uses this free-floating dread, all the encryptions and clandestine meetings, as the background for a narrowly focused you-are-there video account of how Snowden met with Rio-based investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald; how he began a correspondence with Poitras; and how months later Poitras and Greenwald met Snowden in Hong Kong to map out the next momentous steps.
Much of Citizenfour takes place in a Hong Kong hotel room. It feels weirdly like a one-set, one-act play about a justifiably paranoid whistleblower and two committed journalists—one with a camera, one without. Poitras remains off-screen, though occasionally we hear her questions and comments. Initially finding a secure, private mode of communication between Snowden and Poitras was no easy thing in a world of non-secure security. “Assume one trillion guesses per second,” Snowden reminds Poitras regarding the safety of her email password.
Greenwald is joined in Hong Kong by Guardian correspondent Ewen MacAskill. After interviewing Snowden about the NSA’s collection of Verizon customer data, their first story breaks in MacAskill’s paper in London. Poitras and Barton Gellman share bylines in The Washington Post for their account of the secret U.S. program known as PRISM. Snowden strategizes about the timing of his coming-out party, when to reveal himself as the whistleblower/traitor/hero/villain of a story the Obama administration wishes would go away.
The film works, whatever your ethical stance on Snowden, because it’s more procedural than polemic. Filming one conversation, Poitras captures Snowden reacting to an apparently routine hotel fire alarm. Real? A test? What? The timing, he says, seems fishy. Why an alarm at that moment, when he was naming names to journalists in a room that may or may not be bugged?
The questions are right out of a studio thriller made in the pre-Steve Jobs era. The scene’s a bit funny and a bit frightening. And that’s the movie all over, though funny sounds like a funny word to use, in the context of unchecked government surveillance and those who believe too much is too much.
Citizenfour (R): ★★★★✩