dir: Laura Poitras, 2014
Everyone remembers how they felt when PRISM leaked a year and a half ago: pissed off, afraid, but also a little blasé. The country had been feeling the burn of those 4th-amendment violations since the Patriot Act, and for people who’d come of age during the War on Terror it was like a clips episode of a show they’d stopped watching years ago. That sense of resignation, of just let me go home and pretend I’m not under the thumb of sociopathic despots for once, was stronger than ever.
If the original leaks were the clips episode, Citizenfour is the HD reboot. It’s the Batman Begins to the original leak’s tired Schumacher. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll snap out of your jaded funk and start saying obnoxious stuff like “every American should see this movie” to friends and relatives. It’s an important documentary not because of the truths it reveals, but because it’s galvanizing, personality-driven political theater the likes of which we haven’t seen since Michael Moore turned into a hypocritical nostalgia act.
In this case, the personality isn’t provided by the filmmaker (Laura Poitras doesn’t appear save for some brief voiceover), but by the subjects. Poitras’s anonymity doesn’t hide her opinion that Snowden and Glenn Greenwald (the other journalist primarily responsible for giving Snowden a large megaphone) are heroes, and they fill their roles with appealing wit, sensitivity, and righteous indignation. Snowden comes across as a soft-spoken but steel-minded tech genius with complete ethical confidence in what he’s doing, Greenwald as an uncompromising firebrand who spends every waking minute on the clock. Even though they’re not as pretty, they make for more captivating viewing than Jesse Eisenberg and Edward Norton will in the inevitable docudrama remake.
After some early scenes of background—Senate hearings and lectures on the state of privacy in America interspersed with Poitras’s early e-mail communications with Snowden—Poitras confines the middle act to a hotel in Hong Kong where Snowden, Poitras, and Greenwald go to town. Assuming that we already know the nitty-gritty of the NSA’s surveillance programs, Poitras focuses on the people: their trepidation and paranoia as the stories come out, their bravery in the face of compromised relationships and indefinite displacement. After the world learned about PRISM with nothing more to go on than a brief video interview of Snowden, watching him blow the whistle onscreen feels transgressive. You’re a fly on the wall witnessing history being made, and the magnitude of his sacrifice has never felt more poignant.
Poitras’s distance from the spotlight is the opposite of Moore’s self-aggrandizement, but she shares his insight that great political documentaries have to have a satisfying generic function beyond depressing their audiences. Whereas Moore’s movies are sardonic, Chayefsky-esque satires, Citizenfour is unashamed of its spy-movie sheen. From the ominous opening shot of a pitch-black tunnel as Poitras narrates her first contact with Snowden, to the menacing drone of Nine Inch Nails’s 02 Ghosts I that underscores most of the movie, to the blue hues of Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room that echo this year’s A Most Wanted Man, Poitras never hides that she’s trying to give viewers a nail-biting, character-driven thriller along with political discourse. At one point we hear a newscaster in the background describing Snowden’s situation as “straight out of a John Le Carré novel,” and it feels like Poitras is name-dropping one of her biggest influences.
“I’m not the story,” insists Snowden when he asks Poitras and Greenwald to keep him out of their initial reporting. The irony of this is obvious and completely intentional. Snowden didn’t hide from media attention a year ago so that the facts could speak for themselves, he did it so that this movie could be made. History needs characters. The problem with mainstream media outlets isn’t that they’re “personality-driven,” it’s that they’re full of shitty storytellers that drown each other out into white noise. Laura Poitras is not one of these, and Snowden made a great choice in selecting her. All kidding aside, her tight narrative sense only enhances Citizenfour’s primary purpose as robust civic engagement. It throws you into the world in a way few films do: if you leave most issue-based documentaries asking, “Who do I donate $10 to?” this one will be more like, “Should I have not paid with that with my debit card? Am I on a watchlist now?”
Go see it. You’ll be glad you did. It’s the American thing to do.
Kells is an Oakland native with a sad compulsion to put his opinions online. He hopes that you like them, but what’s really important is that you like yourself. @awkeller510