If you’ve only read about Edward Snowden, the former private contractor for the National Security Agency and CIA senior analyst who exposed secret US government surveillance files, you may be in for a shock when you see “Citizenfour.” Instead of an aging, shadowy operative, we have instead a scrawny 29-year-old who resembles nothing so much as a computer science grad student. He spills a whole load of beans on camera yet seems eerily normal and composed – the anti-Julian Assange.
Snowden approached prize-winning journalist and documentarian Laura Poitras about making the movie, which begins in early June 2013 as Poitras and her collaborator, journalist Glenn Greenwald, along with The Guardian’s intelligence correspondent Ewen MacAskill, hunker down with Snowden for nine days in a Hong Kong hotel room. (The movie’s title refers to the code name Snowden used in contacting Poitras.) As we watch the T-shirted Snowden, sitting on his messy hotel bed with his little laptop, set the stage for what is to come, the vast disjunction between these mundane surroundings and his imminent, world-shattering revelations is almost comical.
But there is nothing comical about Snowden’s motivations. Reacting to the unprecedented covert US government programs dedicated to monitoring electronic communications, he says, “As I saw the promise of the Obama administration betrayed, and walked away from, it really hardened me to action.” For all his outward calm, Snowden comes across as a spurned idealist. He understands the personal consequences of his actions: “If I get arrested, I get arrested.” (The film hints, at the very end, that there is a second whistle-blower, much higher up than Snowden. Stay tuned.)
Poitras clearly shares Snowden’s animus, and she interlaces the film with extensive corroborating footage, including interviews with retired NSA technical director William Binney, who discusses with devastating forthrightness the dangers of unchecked government access to all manner of personal communications. She includes hearings in which government officials appear to be lying about their noncomplicity. The film takes aim at President Obama, indicting him for his stepped-up drone strikes, for his expansion of the George W. Bush era of covert surveillance, and for his administration’s attempt to indict Snowden for espionage.
It’s not surprising, given this film’s sympathies, that Poitras doesn’t delve into the legalities of Snowden’s actions or the efficacy of big-time surveillance as an anti-terrorist tool. (Perhaps she believed, wrongly I think, that to do so would detract from Snowden’s cause.) She also seems tone-deaf to the irony of Snowden currently being given political asylum in Moscow by that great champion of human rights, Vladimir Putin. If this is a movie about freedom, as its makers attest, then the freedoms being championed are selectively displayed.
The larger point in “Citizenfour” is that dictatorships have always relied on the massive gathering of information in order to control their populations. In this brave new cyber world, it is all too easy for democracies to cross the line, too. Grade: A- (This film is not rated.)