Movie Review: Citizenfour
Director: Laura Poitras
Reviewed: 28 June 2015
The world in which we live in is unlike the one which I was born into or into which my parents were born. Our digital fingerprints live forever in current and defunct email addresses (by my count, I've had one in college, four on hotmail, one in gmail, and four work addresses), multiple devices (home computers, laptops, tablets, phones), and the ever-growing social media hydra of facebook, twitter, four square, linked-in, instagram, etc... Photos exist everywhere and anywhere. Things that I wrote on message boards or in college float around, available through searches to anyone. All that data, all that information is on a sort of digital bulletin board for the length of our lives and beyond. And what happens if the collection and analysis of the digital fingerprints of our lives is done with ulterior or unseen motives? In Sofia Coppola's film The Bling Ring a few years ago, bored teens in Hollywood used technology to figure out when celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton were out of town, then searched for where they lived, and then invaded their homes to peruse and steal their stuff. The very same thing has been happening for a long time in our post-9-11 world as skilled documentarian Laura Poitras, thoughtful journalist Glenn Greenwald, and courageous whistleblower Edward Snowden show us in the remarkable Citizenfour, a film that documents a place and time in such a profound and moving way. Although the action of the film involves smart people sitting and talking in claustrophobic hotel rooms that serve as quasi-prisons, it is not a boring film. Instead, I'd call it one of the best films of the year, filled with horror and a sense of the emerging reality that we live in: the film's ending is not yet known.
Ed Snowden looks like people I know with whom I went to college. He could be the brother of one of my friends. He's deeply knowledgeable and passionate and thorough in his work as an NSA analyst, but he is not a zealot or a caricature or an anarchist. He sat in a government job in Hawaii and saw his work and the work of others being ultimately opposed to his values and the values of our country and found himself in a unique position to challenge it at the highest level. Someone needs to build the websites that collect the data. Someone needs to have access. Snowden's seeking out of Poitras and Greenwald was most wise, as they are worthy caretakers of this explosive story. To see Ed in the hotel room, talking through the release of leaks and information to the media, attempting to shape the revelations that will completely up-end his life forever is breathtaking. To hear him speak of not wanting to hide his identity, to want to confront the government directly is laudable. Poitras focuses on the conversations, the handwritten notes, the plan for release of leaks to the media, the concern for phones being tapped, and the biggest drama of the film takes places as front desk and media outlets call his hotel room, as the UN attempts to shuttle Ed from one hotel to another, as he speaks to his girlfriend thousands of miles away as the government attempts to evict him and does questionable construction on his street. The zooming out to look at statements and speeches of President Obama is also damning, as it sharply criticizes the administration's say one thing, do another policies regarding data collection on its citizens.
Poitras flashes informative but not overwhelming text on the screen while showing lingering long shots of NSA spy facilities being built in Utah or the nighttime shimmering of barbed wire encrusted servers in German which hold all of our secrets. The engagement here is at the root level of what do Americans deserve in terms of digital privacy? Can (Has) the government compromised its citizenry's rights to protest, to organize, to air grievances, and to speak freely when it captures and collects all private conversations before any sort of crime is committed? One activist talks about the linking up of our phones with something as mundane as a Metro Card to ride the train. With access to those two data points, a person could track where one goes and who one possibly meets by cross-checking the data with millions of others. We are in the world of pre-cognition here, the world of science fiction like Minority Report. What must be done to keep us safe? What should not be done to keep us safe? These questions, rarely raised, were thrust into the international spotlight because of Snowden's work with Greenwald. The ending of the film is riveting because it begins to show the myriad other whistleblowers that could be inspired by this moment in history, as well as the uncertainty of where the story is going and where the story will end.
My limited understanding is that Ed Snowden is still alive and still in Russia, unable to leave for threat of arrest or worse by our government. But I believe his voice is still being heard: he recently spoke via technology at the SXSW Festival in Austin. The idea of citizenry speaking truth to power has its roots in American history. Think Watergate and Deep Throat. Think publishing The Pentagon Papers amidst the Vietnam War. And now, we have Edward Snowden exposing the NSA by revealing its collection of metadata on all of its citizens, especially the over one million that are on the watch list. I think history will come to bear upon his revelations in a way that shows his act to be one of bravery, patriotism, and a vital step in our nation's possible confronting of what we do in the shadows. I loved the 1999 film by Michael Mann The Insider, where the character of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) confronted his conscience and spoke up about lies being perpetuated by the tobacco industry but with great personal cost. That film resonated with me because it was about the moral crisis of that man: When do I speak up?
Edward Snowden has been a figure that I only cursorily knew about through perusing the news, watching media clips, and seeing vodka billboards on US-59 mocking his imprisonment in a Russian hotel. Poitras humanizes him and reminds us that he is a person, desperately trying to get his cowlick to stay down, nervous and uncertain like the rest of us but unwavering in his commitment to exposing what the government is doing. Poitras's Academy Award winning work here is brilliant not simply because of its unprecedented access: to be a fly on the wall in the room in these conversations is truly epic! But rather, the even more impressive nature of this documentary is her clear shaping of the conversation regarding metadata, the synthesis of the global media's reactions to the release of what the NSA is doing (taking us from Rio to Germany, from a London newspaper's nervousness that someone is going to come in and shut them down to the revelation that Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone has been tapped). Poitras goes both big and small, and the result is a blinding, searing indictment of the way things are while showing bravery and dare I say patriotism at the highest levels from activists, journalists, and documentarians. In Citizenfour, she shows citizenry at its most costly and upsetting and vital.