By Marshall Shaffer
“I love my country but fear my government” is the kind of trite maxim that mostly belongs on bumper stickers, yet it ought to express the reaction of any sane American to watching Laura Poitras’ exceptional documentary “Citizenfour.” In her able balancing of both the conveyance of dense, important information with the telling of a personal, human narrative, she exemplifies all the best that cinema can offer as a platform for journalism.
“Citizenfour” does not merely an ex post facto documentation of the events; its production is deeply embedded in the unfolding of the events themselves. Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, her print media colleague, were the first points of contact for the mysterious Citizenfour. This mysterious whistleblower reached out to them in early 2013 through sporadic, encrypted communication. He only hinted at a trove of explosive information in his possession, telling them little other than that the information would be worth their time.
When they traveled to Hong Kong to rendezvous with their informant, the duo had no idea that these documents would reveal massive illegal NSA domestic surveillance programs that were kept off the books. After some careful maneuvering, they meet the source – Edward Snowden (who actually prefers to go by “Ed”). His identity comes as no surprise, though his words and what they reveal about his personality and motivations provides a gripping, enlightening watch.
While Poitras is intimately involved with the events she portrays, her “Citizenfour” manages to keep a healthy distance away from the proceedings. Even with her relative neutrality, the film both engrosses and enrages. As she unspools the story behind the story, Poitras also manages to provide the most in-depth portrait of Snowden. Clad in plained-colored T-shirts, he speaks of a convincing candor and conscience as he relays sophisticated technical knowledge into intelligible terms.
The crux of the film is the eight days in which Poitras and Greenwald spend with Snowden in his room at the Mira Hotel, unpacking the information he smuggled out of the NSA and determining how to slowly leak it out to the public. In this concentrated period of time with the camera fixated primarily on Snowden, a clear image of him emerges. He simply believes that, because everyone has a stake in the government’s power to observe, the world deserves to know the massive quantity of data that the United States is collecting about them.
Rather than personally upload the documents have his own bias affect people’s reactions, he loops in Greenwald and Poitras to release it through their more legitimate channels. Yet, if need be, Snowden says he wants them to paint a target right on his back. Poitras’ presentation of the story without heavy value judgments does lead to him receiving fairly little scrutiny or critique, although “Citizenfour” hardly feels toothless or unfair without it. She does not insist he is a patriot or a martyr; she just wants to present him in his own words.
Poitras also aims broader than a close-up on Snowden. “Citizenfour” simultaneously serves as the most comprehensive cinematic examination to date of the Orwellian security state that has expanded far beyond the borders of the United States. Even though the scope of the NSA programs has become widely recognized in the months following Snowden’s revelations, hearing statistics and facts still has the capacity to elicit gasps and shocks. Poitras chooses to underscore the film with the gently unnerving pulsations of Nine Inch Nails, but something that sounded as cataclysmic as “Dies Irae” from “The Shining” would have felt equally appropriate.
The paranoia and fear of government overreach gets baked into the fabric of “Citizenfour” itself as Poitras has to evade subpoena or seizure of her communication with Snowden, something she documents extensively throughout the film. State censorship may seem a relic of the Watergate, “All the President’s Men” era, yet it appears as perniciously as ever to plug Snowden’s leaks. Knowing the danger Poitras faced in order to bring her film to audiences only augments the relevance of its call for transparency and accountability. “Citizenfour” is an undeniably important work that ought to increase the amount of respect due to those who take tremendous risks in order to speak truth to power.
“Citizenfour” opens Friday at a/perture downtown. Get screening time and ticket information HERE.