While I consider the phrase “reality television” an oxymoron, there’s nothing wrong with a good–—make that great–—piece of fly-on-the-wall cinéma vérité to open your eyes and leave you wondering—what if “he” had stayed quiet. The eponymous figure in “Citizenfour” (an alias used to hide his identity) is Edward Joseph Snowden, the former National Security Agency computer contractor turned grand whistleblower. If, if, if. If he hadn’t felt that our country’s freedoms were being crushed and our privacy invaded, the media tsunami might never have thrashed the world into its still unraveling frenzy.
This glorious finishing chapter of her post-9/11 America trilogy has filmmaker-journalist Laura Poitras once again scooting behind the camera, mostly in June 2013, to meet and observe the film’s central character. Her three piece story began with an exploration of the Iraq War with the Academy Award-nominated “My Country, My Country” (2006). “The Oath,” in 2010, was the middle of her damning saga, following two men from Yemen, brothers-in-law, caught up in the life of Osama bin Laden. “Citizenfour” is no doubt headed to the short list for Oscar gold (as well as widespread critical acclaim).
I wonder which of Washington’s movers and shakers will be venturing out to the Landmark E Street Theatre, the film’s exclusive opening-week venue in the nation’s capital. Will some of the agents from the FBI (maybe those who hassled Snowden’s family and friends) stroll across the street from their headquarters to videotape the film (guys, it’s a felony) and upload it to the NSA servers for their buddies to watch? What politicians will dare to buy a ticket and relive the embarrassment of the government inaction (and pray they’re not in the film)?
Along with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, the defense and intelligence correspondent for The Guardian, the film captures the incredibly well-spoken idealist as he morphs into unlikely hero and eventual pariah. His story, culled from over 100 hours of footage shot in a Hong Kong luxury hotel room, was the beginning of the still-continuing exposé of governmental abuse. The world was stunned as Greenwald’s articles, and Snowden’s face, flashed across news screens. TV pundits chimed in. More stories churned up more anxiety. A one-two sucker punch dropped the NSA (which ain’t going away anytime soon, folks, and is mightily pissed at Apple about its new iPhones) to its knees and made it fodder for late night comedy sketches.
Sometimes Poitras allows a few glimpses of a computer screen showing their encrypted emails they felt might be eavesdropped upon. At other times notes are scribbled and then torn up, the camera focusing on a scrap of paper indicating a pyramid of mistrust reaching as high as the President of the United States. There are moments as tense as a Jason Bourne thriller, especially when Snowden peers at the city skyline out a wide window that would never stop a sniper’s bullet had the authorities figured out where he was. They probably knew, as someone or something kept setting off the building’s fire alarm repeatedly. At one point the paranoia escalates so much they change to the director’s room to continue their conversations. Spooky.
“Citizenfour” presents a dedicated effort to reveal the secrets and lies of the state, an attempt to even the playing field. Some people think that’s a bad idea as there are, indeed, enough nasty criminals and suicide terrorists out there that are eluding capture in face of the angry backlash. How comfortable are you, Mr. or Mrs. Average American, that an all-seeing beast is able to read your text messages and emails, snoop around your Facebook posts, listen in on your phone calls, and tag along to the websites you visit?
There is nearly no music (by Trent Rezor and Atticus Ross), to force your emotions about the resolute and composed Snowden’s leaking of the classified documents, until the film’s end.
“Citizenfour” is wintry raw and almost unworldly in its realism. It will kickstart many water cooler conversations. Quite the coming out party.