Directed by Laura Poitras
Starring Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Jacob Applebaum
The best horror film of the year isn't a bloody, gory thrillfest. Instead, it's a documentary that takes you front and center during the heat of the Edward Snowden information leak that dominated the headlines last year and is still resonant today. Director Laura Poitras delivers an unnerving, slow-paced thriller that gives you a firsthand look at the days leading up to arguably the largest breach of American information.
Presented in its own form of intrigue, Citizenfour is not a run-of-the-mill informational diatribe. Instead, Poitras, a veteran documentarian, uses her own struggles as an investigative journalist to further the risk involved in presenting the information we see on screen. Snowden, at the time unknown, contacted Poitras in a bid for her help in releasing sensitive documents relating to the US government's use of information gathering. In a post-9/11 America, the thought of extreme surveillance by the American government isn't completely shocking, but heavy citizen surveillance does pose a privacy issue. Snowden, a contractor working in the top secret sectors of the NSA, was given access to countless files that exposed an abundance of potentially shocking and perhaps illegal activity being performed regularly by the NSA. These actions included confiscating daily cell phone activity of millions of Americans from leading cell phone providers.
In Snowden feeling compelled to share this information, there is a certain angle that the documentary takes. This story was a huge worldwide story, partly because it put America in a negative light and partly because it effected people farther and wider than just the American borders. The news media, as shown in the film, ate up the chance to expose this information, but did so with very strict respect to authorities. In fact, in one somewhat brutal scene, editors at The Guardian in London go back and forth on whether they want to put themselves in the position of outing organizations that participated in the surveillance, out of fear of government or agency backlash. This type of fear feeds into the riskiness of it all and gives the film an overall conspiracy filter. It is a political thriller better than anything Hollywood could concoct.
Seeing this side of a major media blitz is haunting. Whether you agree with the NSA in calling Snowden a traitor, or the thought of the Obama administration overstepping their boundaries, there's no doubt that what we see on a regular basis in the news media isn't always the full story. It puts a humanity to the character that has become Edward Snowden. It adds a level of relative terror to the fact that every ounce of anything you type or search or say could be intercepted by a number of surveillance engines. If that's not exciting in a thrilling way and a scary way, I don't know what is!
Snowden's story alone is worth capturing. Nothing is crazier than when he relays information about his longtime girlfriend back home and her experiences after the information leaks. "Road crews" in the neighborhood. An HR rep from the NSA coming to the house for an in-person visit. It's real life edge-of-your-seat drama. What I found more compelling, though, was the ringer that Poitras has experienced in her years of seemingly anti-American whistleblower filmmaking. She's open about her border check issues and finding out she's high up on the list of flight risks. She even spends her time in places like Berlin and Brazil, knowing that if she were to try to re-enter America during the information leak, she'd be stopped and harassed. The same goes for journalist Glenn Greenwald. After being the reporter to release the information, his life goes through spirals of intense scrutiny from government agents and media, not just towards him, but towards his loved ones.
From the hotel in Hong Kong where Snowden camped out prior to the information leak, to the home in Moscow he now finds himself, Citizenfour is a tour de force film experience. It's expertly shot, editing, and presented. It's a story that is insanely relevant and never overtly propaganda. It's an honest portrayal of fact that is more exciting than fiction.
Runtime: 114 minutes