Overview: Directed by Oscar winner Laura Poitras (My Country, My Country), CITIZENFOUR is a real-life international thriller that unfolds by the minute. With unprecedented access, this gripping behind-the-scenes chronicle follows Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald’s remarkable encounters with Edward Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room as he hands over classified documents that provide evidence of mass indiscriminate and illegal invasions of privacy by the National Security Agency (NSA).
Poitras had been working on a film about surveillance for two years when Snowden contacted her, using the name “Citizenfour,” in Jan. 2013. He reached out to Poitras because he knew she was a longtime target of government surveillance who had refused to be intimidated. When Snowden told Poitras he would not conceal his identity as the source of information on the massive surveillance of Americans by the NSA, Poitras persuaded him to meet in person and let her film their encounter. Thus, CITIZENFOUR places viewers in the hotel room with Poitras, Greenwald and Snowden as they attempt to manage the media storm raging outside, forced to make quick decisions that will affect their lives and all around them. The documentary not only shows the dangers of governmental surveillance, but makes audiences feel them. After seeing the film, viewers will never think the same way about their phone, e-mail, credit cards, web browser or digital footprint again.
Expectations: I am counting on this being the definitive account of the Snowden story. If you are like me you have caught the news stories of this intense incident piecemeal. When this story was breaking out you were never sure you understood it in its entirety or even saw the complete story as you only caught it here and there. Finally, the entire series of events should play out and the entire story should be told all in one sitting. And you know it has to be concise, detailed and compelling because CITIZENFOUR is now an Academy Award Winner for Best Documentary. This is going to be good.
Gut Reaction: Edward Snowden says that this was all done not to bring intentional notoriety to himself; he did it for the larger issue at hand. CITIZENFOUR is not about him either, but the larger picture. It is about government surveillance of its citizenry. It is not about Citizenfour (his name on all the encrypted e-mails) alone, but about all the rest of us, CitizenOne and up, that reside on this planet. It is an issue that should concern us all. The crucial linchpin in this whole scenario, however, is Snowden.
He makes the sacrifice; he makes the bold move. You can debate all you want on whether he is a traitor to his country or a whistleblower for a cause. The argument still stands about the NSA’s surveillance practices. And that looms over you as you watch every frame of this 114 minute documentary. This is the definitive account. Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald take us through the encrypted e-mails and hotel room meetings with Snowden and you can sense the intensity of the whole matter.
If I had to grumble about anything regarding the film it has to do with editing. There are more than enough lingering moments of Snowden clacking away on his laptop; enough cutaways to news footage, Snowden staring out the window and fussing over his hair to drag this all out longer. One segment of Greenwald rattling off in a foreign tongue got long in the tooth. But hey, that’s it all minor. One amazing aspect of this piece is Snowden himself. Though he mentions his nervousness he doesn’t really seem to be that agitated as he hides away in this Hong Kong hotel. Quite oddly though those very snippets of footage that I grumbled about actually convey the nervousness I thought was missing.
The film leaves you hauntingly unsettled. It plays out in real time as they all determine in that hotel room just how to break the story. No reenactment could capture the intensity of this situation. It is open ended as we wonder what will happen to Snowden and what the outcome of this incident may be.
Bonus: To discover more on your own seek out the official website of the documentary.
In Conclusion: It proves worthy of an Oscar. You will decide for yourself whether Edward Snowden is a criminal or a concerned citizen. You will decide experience for yourself whether a level of paranoia has arisen; you will decide for yourself whther you trust the government. You will undoubtedly have a strong opinion on the issues and the players involved. And the story isn’t over.
Find CITIZENFOUR on HBO into March or on HBOGo. Who knows, maybe the NSA will know that you watched it?