Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Laura Poitras.
This documentary is a sort of Pentagon Papers for the digital age.
In 2013 filmmaker Laura Poitras received some encrypted emails from an anonymous source calling himself “citizenfour”. He claimed to have evidence of illegal surveillance operations carried out by the National Security Agency, in conjunction with intelligence agencies from other countries, spying on citizens in the name of national security. He claimed to have proof that the NSA was spying on the leaders of other supposedly friendly countries, and that they were tapping telephones of world leaders. These revelations were damaging to America’s reputation, and painted their intelligence agencies in a similar light to the security organs of hard line and secretive communist countries during the Cold War as they systematically spied on their own people.
The anonymous whistleblower turned out to be low level intelligence analyst Edward Snowden, who in 2013 released thousands of documents online that exposed the scale of this invasion of privacy. By coincidence Poitras was working on a film about covert government surveillance operations when she was approached by Snowden.
Poitras and crusading journalist Glenn Greenwald met with Snowden in secret in a Hong Kong hotel room and were present when he released the documents online. Poitras recorded his actions as they happened, making audiences privy to the moment when history was made. She gives the documentary an immediacy and a cinema verite style.
Poitras is a very political filmmaker, whose previous films like The Oath, etc, were provocative and dealt with the culture of secrecy, the moral vacuum of America’s war on terror in the morally complex brave new post 9/11 world, and the dangerous directions in which the country seems to be moving. This is third film in her unofficial trilogy on the aftermath of the war on terror. After her 2006 film My Country, My Country was critical of the war in Iraq, Poitras was placed on a watch list by the US intelligence agencies. This forced her to move to Berlin.
Poitras does also manage to capture an air of paranoia though as she is forced to go to great lengths to protect her footage. All of which is why Snowden specifically chose to contact her with his revelations.
But Poitras also follows government whistleblower William Binney, an intelligence analyst who also spoke out about government abuses committed in the name of national security. The NSA was virtually able to spy on citizens without and sort of oversight or restrictions, even though the head of the organisation regularly denied under oath that it collected data. Snowden’s revelations however forced President Obama onto the backfoot, and he reluctantly told the press that the NSA was mining for “metadata” while trying to reassure the public over concerns about spying.
Although he seems intelligent and articulate, Snowden comes across as a bit naive, especially given what happened to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and another whistleblower in Bradley Manning, who leaked military secrets online. Assange is still holed up inside the Ecuadorian embassy to avoid extradition, while Bradley is currently safely ensconced in Russia where he has been granted temporary political asylum. Obviously Snowden didn’t think through the consequences of his actions and was a bit naive to think that the US government wouldn’t come after him with the full force of their security organisations.
Poitras brings an almost oppressive sense of claustrophobia to many scenes, and the film at times seem reminiscent of one of those paranoid political thrillers from the 70s. Although the documentary deals with some important issues in this brave new post 9/11 world, the film itself is visually quite dull and bland at times. Those scenes in Snowden’s hotel room eventually become repetitive, and much of the tension of the moment evaporates. And Poitras uses an inventive method to display some of the emails on screen.
She had shot over one hundred hours of footage, and had to make some tough decisions over what to show when shaping the film. It is obvious where Poitras’ personal beliefs lie, and this has also played a crucial role in shaping the film. With Citizenfour it is obvious that Poitras is concerned with the loss of freedoms this surveillance represents. Citizenfour highlights the dangers of covert government surveillance, and shows how they can track you and build an accurate profile through your mobile phone, credit card use, web searches and email. And Poitras is obviously hoping to move audiences out of their collective apathy and raise awareness.
In some ways this film is a marked contrast to Alex Gibney’s recent documentary We Steal Secrets, about Wikileaks, which was far more wide reaching and broad in its scope, exploring the threads that linked Assange, Manning and Snowden. Poitras highlights the concerns about transparency in the government’s decisions and our vanishing freedoms and the sort of mass surveillance that targets entire populations. She acknowledges that the government does have the right to protect its borders, but on the other hand the public has a right to know what actions its government is taking.