A bold film by Laura Poitras, CITIZENFOUR is a riveting first-person look at a the NSA whistle-blowing by Edward Snowden, captured in real-time.
Approached by CITIZENFOUR, journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill along with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras fly to Hong Kong in the summer of 2013 to meet with the man who ended up being Edward Snowden to discuss and divulge secret information regarding covert surveillance programs run by the NSA and other intelligence programs of American and international citizens.
The documentary is a thrilling and terrifying account of the turn of events that transpired before, during and after the groundbreaking reports were leaked and the actions taken by the American government. This review of CITIZENFOUR is not going to be a debate regarding the ethics of whistle-blowing or the government collection of data. That discussion can be saved for when someone mentions that they have seen CITIZENFOUR and an debate-like argument will indubitably ensue. This review will try to focus, as much as it can, on the scope of the film’s impact and the effectiveness of the film as a documentary.
By now, the leaks, news reports and information released by Edward Snowden is somewhat known by most of the world’s population. The extent of this information is dependent upon one’s own desire to seek out said information, the types of news sources one chooses to read and the country in which one resides.
CITIZENFOUR looks deeply at the scope of the impact that releasing this information has on the world, in real time, as the journalists themselves are brought up to speed on the extent of intelligence agencies’ data collection. It looks at the motivation for Snowden releasing this information and the intellectual discussion between Snowden with the journalists about what this data collection means. Included in the documentary is a dialogue between Snowden and the journalists about: the means through which the government was able to collect this information, the extent and growth of the state’s power versus the people’s ability to meaningfully oppose said power, the issues regarding the safeguarding measures of collecting and controlling this information, the harm to people or methods of releasing legitimately classified documents, and the inevitable consequences for Snowden in being the catalyst for releasing the information.
The effectiveness of CITIZENFOUR as a documentary hinges upon its time-frame, in that all of the video used in the film was caught in real time. This in-the-moment view removed any creative bias, caused by the ultimate outcome of Snowden and impact of this dissemination of information to the world public, that may have been inflicted upon the documentary. Poitras’s choice of creative direction allows viewers of CITIZENFOUR to not only feel a part of this groundbreaking moment of journalism but to also feel the same emotions and fear all those involved felt and feel as the events transpire. The information documented in the film also ends up not feeling edited or embellished, which only goes on to further amplify the factual effectiveness of CITIZENFOUR as a documentary.
There are startlingly terrifying and unnerving moments within CITIZENFOUR, not from a cultivation or magnification of emotion from the cinematography, but in the real-time effects of releasing this information once the news articles go public in The Guardian and the direct repercussions this has on Edward Snowden. Thanks to the direction of Poitras, the audience can immediately reference Snowden’s own predictions of how the government would act, and then we the viewers get to see these exact actions come to fruition, yielding a sobering and depressing humor.
CITIZENFOUR is a documentary that should be watched and released everywhere, and its lack of distribution, especially in the United States, is further proof of the necessity for transparency and awareness.