Movie Review #949


Limited release on October 24, 2014. Documentary. This film is rated R for language. Runs 114 minutes. A German-American co-production. Directed by Laura Poitras. Featuring Edward Snowden.


By Red Stewart

I’m under the impression that when the NSA leaks first happened, most Americans either had one of two immediate reactions:

1) They weren’t surprised.

2) They didn’t care.

The former no doubt stems from generations of people living through the Cold War Communist paranoia. The latter, however, appears to have grown out of this mindset many people have that “if I’m not doing anything wrong, I have nothing to worry about.”

What I love about “Citizenfour” is how it makes a very compelling case as to why this philosophy is dangerous and why we should take an active interest in the government’s Big Brother-esque programs. While marketed as a biographical look into Edward Snowden’s life, the film goes much deeper than that–transcending its documentary roots into a realistic political thriller that, like “Foxcatcher”, should’ve been distributed wider for everyone to see.

Editing what must’ve been hours and hours of footage, director Laura Poitras has crafted a narrative that cycles through three major elements in its eight-day timespan–there are the discussions about the NSA’s various espionage networks between Snowden and Guardian reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill; the corporate news reaction to the publication of said leaks, and finally some slice-of-life activities in Snowden’s daily routine.

Ironically, it’s this last element I found the most interesting as it sheds light on this mysterious figure called Ed Snowden. Here’s a man who did what he did knowing he had nothing to gain and everything to lose, and he played it just like that. Does Snowden view himself as a hero? He claims no, but his request that the journalists scapegoat him for the leaks suggests otherwise. Does he miss his family, whom he’ll probably never see again (unless a future President pardons him)? He jokingly laughs when talking about his wife’s unique predicament, but his eyes tell an entirely different tale of pain, worry, and grief.

But perhaps most striking is just how normal Snowden comes off. I was expecting a larger-than-life figure; a secret agent conspiring under the shadows of naiveness of the general public, but that just isn’t the case. Here isn’t a man who committed the crime of the century, but a nice guy you’d want to have a cup of coffee with and discuss the weather.

“Citizenfour”, Snowden’s former anonymous moniker, is an interesting title for this film in that it seems to suggest something bigger about the world in which it’s being released. The security talks Poitras has chosen to include focus on daily technological routes every single one of us utilizes multiple times a day. With the federal government having the power to construct threat-level analyses of every American, we’re all theoretical citizenfours–potential candidates for being thrown in jail without a constitutional trial.

In a lot of ways, there’re strong elements of Greek tragedy in Snowden’s story. Here is a man who walked into the NSA thinking he would be helping his country, only for him to destroy his life “betraying” it.


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