Having missed it during its initial theater run, I finally got to see Citizen Four last night on HBO, the day after it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. It’s an exceptional film, both for its powerful subject matter and for its restrained style, and if the Oscar award drives more people to see it, that would be a good thing.
The subject is Edward Snowden, the whistle-blower who revealed the NSA’s vast system of spying on American citizens. Snowden’s high security clearances gave him access to essentially everything that the NSA was [and is still] doing to collect and aggregate data from Americans’ [and others’] electronic communications. Even though much has been written about the NSA’s program since Snowden revealed it in 2013, I still got goose bumps while seeing it all again in Citizen Four.
Much has also been written about whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. What we see in Citizen Four is neither of those: Snowden comes across as a highly intelligent and skilled person who, while doing his job as a systems administrator, began wondering about the constitutionality of the activities he was monitoring, and felt an ethical duty to reveal what was going on.
As he talks with Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras, Snowden is calm and rational. Clearly, he has thought carefully about what he is doing, why he’s doing it, and how best to get the information into the hands of reliable reporters, and out to the American public, whose rights are being violated.
Significantly, Snowden conveys all of his secretly obtained government documents to Greenwald [and others, for backup] in one huge data drop, rather than doling it out piecemeal. He helps Greenwald understand the structure of the documents, but makes no other comments. He has a specific rationale for sharing all of the information at once and with minimal commentary, he explains: He wants to avoid overlaying the documents with his own interpretations and prejudices.
Snowden also emphasizes that he does not want to be the story. He has been stealthy, of necessity, in obtaining and sharing sensitive NSA documents. But he does not want to remain anonymous for long, because he wants the focus to be on the revelations themselves, rather than on the spy-story search for his identity.
Not much happens, in the cinematic sense, in Citizen Four. Poitras creates an ominous tone, but does not sensationalize. She doesn’t have to: Snowden’s revelations themselves provide all the necessary shock value. And although the story itself has a lot of cloak-and-dagger, spy-novel characteristics, Poitras, to her credit, doesn’t overemphasize them. Much of the film focuses on the early conversations between Snowden and Greenwald, during which they figure out the ground rules for their interactions and strategize how Snowden’s information will be revealed through the press.
Poitras could have created a made-for-TV “America’s Most Wanted”-style show, but she didn’t. Instead, she has made a straightforward, as-it-happened documentary that reveals Edward Snowden’s intelligence, his sincerity, and his carefully thought-out plan to share information he sees as critical to the health of American democracy.
Nevertheless, there are some moments of high drama: The encrypted e-mail messages going back and forth between Snowden, Poitras and Greenwald; the paranoiac peak when a fire alarm suddenly blares in the Hong Kong hotel where Snowden is secretly meeting with Greenwald and Poitras; the notes passed between Greenwald and Snowden in Russia, where they fear eavesdropping. These things happened during filming, and they are part of the story.
Of course, this story does not end with the final credits. Today, Snowden is off the front pages, supplanted by the headline du jour. But we are all still wrestling with what he did, why he did it, and what it means in terms of our faith in our government and our sense of safety, privacy and freedom. In Citizen Four, Snowden expresses the wish that, once he has faded from the headlines—whether living in Russia, as he is currently, or possibly in jail, an outcome many hope for—others with similar concerns and information will come forward. I can only hope that, in the interest of democracy, his wish is fulfilled.