This important film by Laura Poitras, which recently won an Academy Award for Best Documentary, tells the story of former National Security Agency-contractor and systems administrator Edward Snowden, who in 2013 decided to go public with details about the scale of the surveillance programs used by the US and UK governments to track and spy on its own citizens and those of other countries. At times it plays out like a real-life spy thriller, filled with revelations about the erosion of public privacy and shots of paranoid IM chatter, but Citizenfour sheds light on a problem that is all too real: civil liberties are under severe attack from governments who are apparently happy to abuse and bypass the laws they and predecessors have created, and that they should be bound by.
Two years ago, at the age of 29 and using the handle ‘Citizenfour’, Snowden made contact with Poitras via an encrypted message. The filmmaker – already on a US watchlist in the wake of her earlier Oscar-nominated documentary My Country, My Country – subsequently met with the whistleblower in a Hong Kong hotel room, along with Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill. A sizeable portion of the documentary details their meetings in the hotel in June 2013, where the remarkable Snowden initially explains who he is, why he is revealing the information he holds, and the possible repercussions he and his loved ones might face once the facts are made public.
Snowden’s revelations cover everything from his ability to watch thousands of live surveillance drone feeds on his desktop to the powers governments now wield through data matching, essentially delving into the email and telephone records of telecommunications firms and other big data-gathering companies (Google, Yahoo, Hotmail et al) to profile and track people, seemingly without impunity; UK residents will probably be surprised to hear that GCHQ’s Tempora system reaches even further than anything used by the US.
As the story breaks we are given a sense of what it’s like to be at the centre of a media storm, and while the desperate hunt for Snowden takes place off-camera (interestingly it looks as if other newspapers pinpointed his whereabouts before the US government managed to) he stays put in his hotel room, his face suddenly and surreally a regular fixture on the wall-mounted TV. Though he remains oddly calm at times, there are other moments where he is understandably jumpy and paranoid: he suspects he can be heard via a manufacturer-implanted microchip in his hotel phone and uses a blanket as a hood when typing in passwords; later on the journalists and filmmaker reunite with Snowden in a Russian hotel room, where they write down key words and facts instead of saying them out loud. Though this all looks extreme Snowden’s background working for the NSA (and formerly the CIA) means that his caution is completely based on knowledge and experience.
Judging by this documentary Snowden seems to be a modest man, and he explains his sense of duty to the public in an erudite, clear fashion. He is aware of the consequences he will face and admits that he has no prior experience of dealing with the media; he is happy for Greenwald, Poitras and MacAskill to manage the story – initially, at least – in as sensitive a way as they can. Between them they decide to release information first without naming the source, so that the story isn’t immediately ‘about’ Snowden, but naturally they can only hold back the flood for so long. Within 48 hours or so this courageous man has become one of the most recognisable people in the world, which makes his slight efforts at disguise – shaving, adding more hair gel – somewhat absurd. I do wonder what Snowden, Greenwald et al think about Oliver Stone’s decision to make the forthcoming star-studded biopic Snowden, which I fear will be the antithesis of this documentary.
The reaction to the story is fascinating, and Poitras details the major events that happened in the aftermath, including various incidents of government pressure on those directly involved, their loved ones and on media agencies already juggling the need for responsible reporting and issues of legality. Meanwhile Snowden’s quest for political asylum is aided by Wikileaks, whose founder Julian Assange appears briefly in this documentary. The whistleblower is currently in Russia, where he has secured a three year residency permit, but he has recently made noises about returning home despite the criminal charges he faces.
The film is scored discordantly by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and the buzzing thrum of their soundtrack adds to the general sense of paranoia and unease, a mood that’s also heightened by the on-screen decryption of coded messages. However this is a documentary where content comes first and style is a secondary concern, and the bravery of all involved in making it and breaking the story is rightly being celebrated. Snowden is aware that many whistleblowers have been ‘destroyed by the experience’ and he feels he must stand up to the bullying tactics that he faces, hopefully emboldening others to step forward in future. The level of courage required to do so is captured effectively here.
Directed by: Laura Poitras
Starring: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill
Running Time: 112 minutes