Most documentaries about momentous historic events rely on interviews with eyewitnesses and sources to recreate what happened and contextualize why it was important. Citizenfour, the riveting documentary by award-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras, is different: This one captures history as it happened, live in front of the camera, and the effect turns a well-known story into a thriller that takes place almost entirely inside a Hong Kong hotel room.
That’s where the polarizing NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden took refuge after fleeing his post in Hawaii and contacting the filmmaker, who had previously made movies about Iraq and Guantanamo, via encrypted e-mails. Glenn Greenwald, a contributing reporter for The Guardian, was also invited to a days-long pow-wow in which the 29 year-old Snowden, who looks like a jittery college student who had stayed up all night cramming for finals, handed over hundreds of top-secret documents that revealed the U.S. government had used the Patriot Act as an excuse to snoop in on any telephone conversation, e-mail, credit card account or personal correspondence – even yours.
Using a buzzy, unnerving score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Citizenfour makes you share the same sense of shock and paranoia as Snowden spews damning information that implicates the White House in transgressions that extend beyond our borders into other countries. Watching Snowden speak to Greenwald, who manages to keep focused and cool while being confronted with the biggest story of his career, imparts a thrilling suspense, because you’re watching things you had only previously read about. Once the first of several stories broke, the U.S. government charged Snowden with three felonies, including two counts of espionage based on a dusty law written in 1918. Greenwald’s work went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, which was shared with The Washington Post and several other reporters (including Poitras).
Many people have condemned Snowden, a private contractor who had clearance to access the highest levels of security and now resides in Moscow, as a traitor. Others hail him as a hero of the people, exposing one of the ways in which elected officials blatantly lie to the people. The movie, however, leaves no doubt on whose side it’s on (the film’s final shot is chilling). Citizenfour argues that when we lose our personal privacy, we also lose our liberty, because fear overcomes our freedom of speech. That argument is provocative and complicated, but it’s a conversation worth having, no matter which side of the political spectrum you’re on. It also proves that old adage to be true: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not watching you.
With: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Jacob Appelbaum.
Director: Laura Poitras.
A Radius-TWC release. Running time: 114 minutes. Vulgar language. Opens Friday Nov. 21 in Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood, Miami Beach Cinematheque.