REVIEW: Citizenfour [2014]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: R | Runtime: 114 minutes | Release Date: October 24th, 2014 (USA)
Studio: RADiUS-TWC
Director(s): Laura Poitras

“It’s scary but at the same time liberating”

Some films cannot be judged solely on form because their content is too crucial to be swept underneath ideas of aesthetic. Laura PoitrasCitizenfour is a perfect example. Its visuals are monotonously static with a majority of sequences depicting conversations between a whistleblower and a reporter inside a hotel room and there’s little information disseminated that hasn’t already been made publically known. To someone like me with only a cursory knowledge of the leak and specifics of the NSA’s surveillance into the American public, a Cliff’s Notes of that info is still more than cursory. What Poitras provides above its summary, however, is an in-depth look at the journalistic process and the real time ramifications endured once someone takes a stand against America’s democratic behemoth for being as bad and worse than its oppressively totalitarian enemies abroad.

This is a horror story of the found footage variety wherein Poitras didn’t merely find the topic of Edward Snowden and decide to cull together insight and talking heads to tell it in a mainstream way for commercial gain. She was chosen. A member of US watch-lists already thanks to her previous documentaries, Snowden saw her as an ally with the courage to do what’s right. He sent her anonymous, secure emails under the titular codename, pointed her in the direction of The Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, and organized a meet-up in Hong Kong to discuss the files he had taken from the NSA and the reasons for his actions. Being the filmmaker that Poitras is, she ensured everything was documented in order for the American public to see the truth unfiltered by secondary sources and governmental briefs.

Boy is it an eye-opener to our Orwellian present with but a few participants willing to take a stand for the blissfully ignorant pretending freedom and liberty are and always will remain intact. Snowden isn’t the first whistleblower to speak out against the NSA and its aggressive maneuverings after 9/11, but he’s the most infamous thus far. Poitras introduces William Binney, an engineer of software able to search citizen metadata and create a story around any individual thought to be a risk before saying enough was enough when asked to implement it on a global scale without oversight. Next comes Jacob Appelbaum speaking about the slippery slope of digital connectivity between our bankcards, phones, and metro passes drawing a map of every day of our lives. The hairs on the back of your neck will rise.

None of it is strictly staged for her either. Unless I’m mistaken, everything Poitras captures is from the perspective of a fly on the wall at meetings that would have occurred whether she was present or not. Brought together as a timeline of events directly before, during, and after the eight days she, Greenwald, investigative reporter Ewen MacAskill, and Snowden spent in the Pacific, we’re given unfettered access to a process of information retrieval you would be forgiven for thinking was extinct. If his own words can be trusted—and I don’t see why not in the context presented—Snowden was fully cognizant of what he embarked on as well as the personal moral obligation behind it. He was on the inside actively transforming the dynamic between elected and electorate into ruler and ruled and it was too much.

The film’s conceit is obviously pro-Snowden and pro-whistleblower when the secrets being exposed pertain to the conscious revoking of our human rights, but don’t think it preaches as a result. Besides editing for time and content, what we see is raw material as it happened with honest reactions and serious decisions to be made. Does it exonerate Snowden legally from the charges against him? No. As a group of pro bono lawyers discuss, the archaic WWI precedent he’s up against is so broad that the government’s case is manipulatively airtight. It does, however, shine him in a selfless, intelligent light to prove he was always going to reveal himself, refused to let personal bias interfere with the information’s relevancy, and warned those he entrusted that some of the documents must stay classified for security reasons.

What occurs next is the fallout in all its spun glory and reactionary posturing. Poitras splices in Wolf Blitzer telling the world of Greenwald’s articles breaking the stories; President Obama retroactively pretending he was going to begin a debate on NSA activities, but now was usurped by the leak and a too emotionally vocal public; and snippets of details via email correspondence and video confessions about the questioning of Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills, the detainment of Greenwald’s partner, and Poitras’ own experience being followed in Hong Kong before heading back to Germany. The snowball effect is in full-force with the US scrambling to cleanup a mess of indeterminate size while Snowden seeks asylum and the reporters the privacy to do their jobs. And all the while “Person of Interest” is proven much more than pure science fiction.

So while the movie is hardly a ground-breaking piece of cinema—there are countless examples of work depicting the inside machinations of incendiary activism—you cannot disregard its importance at showing us the sacrifice and fear that goes into doing what’s right. Snowden could have given his files to WikiLeaks and let sensitive information roam freely over the internet like the presently ongoing ridiculousness surrounding Sony’s The Interview, but he paused to do what he knew was necessary in the safest way possible for all involved. Saying he put the onus on Greenwald and The Guardian to be tactful and therefore take blame if not would be correct, but it’s still inspiring to see his ability to step back and allow the professionals to do what they do. It means nothing to the government, but everything to us.


photography:
courtesy of RADiUS-TWC

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