Saturday, October 11, 2014

“CitizenFour”– Movie Review



On the final day of The New York Film Festival, I attended the World Premiere of “CitizenFour”, a new documentary about Edward Snowden, directed by Laura Poitras. 


When a documentarian is anonymously contacted by someone who claims to have information about United States spying operations, she agrees to meet with him to record an interview – but little does she know that her filming of Edward Snowden will result in a major news story worldwide. 


At the outset of 2013, documentarian Laura Poitras was working on a movie about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.  During that time, she started receiving anonymous e-mails from someone who identified himself merely as CitizenFour; this person claimed to have some degree of detailed inside information about the spying practices carried out by the United States.  Exactly how he knew about this wasn’t immediately clear to her, but since he was communicating with her in encrypted e-mails which she then needed to decrypt in order to read them, she felt that this individual had some degree of credibility. 

Eventually, after months of e-mailing, they agreed to meet for an interview along with Glenn Greenwald, a political blogger for the Web site  The interview would take place at the source’s hotel room in Hong Kong.  When Poitras and Greenwald meet him there, they learn his true identity:  Edward Snowden, an IT contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton who worked for the National Security Agency, an intelligence branch of the United States government.  Over the course of eight consecutive days in this Hong Kong hotel room, both Greenwald and Poitras would interview Snowden concerning what he knew about how the American government conducted its intelligence operations. 

When Greenwald started publishing his interviews with Snowden, they immediately made big news internationally, but especially in the United States.  Soon thereafter, it became obvious that Snowden’s cover had been blown and that these secret meetings would soon have to come to an abrupt end, else everyone would be in danger.  Through the aid of some lawyers who are advocates for victims of people who have suffered civil liberties violations, Snowden is whisked out of Hong Kong by way of Moscow.  However, by the time he reaches the airport there, he discovers that his United States passport has been revoked and he now finds himself stuck in Russia. 


While a captivating, gripping story, the main problem with “CitizenFour” has to do with its perspective – that is to say that it lacks objectivity.  Documentarian Laura Poitras clearly has her own personal agenda with this documentary and she makes no attempt whatsoever to keep it hidden.  Nor did she keep her politics hidden when she did her previous documentaries on the Iraq war.  Having a point of view on a documentary is one thing, but trying to pass yourself off as a news reporter is another, especially when it’s clear that you’ve got an axe to grind (which is why the government has made her life difficult). 

The fatal flaw in “CitizenFour” has to do with the lionization of its subject, Snowden, as well as his facilitator Greenwald, not to mention the self-aggrandizing attention drawn to the filmmaker herself while caught up in the midst of this catastrophic whirlwind of national security breaches.  Presenting the story the way in which it has been done, Poitras merely succeeds in preaching to a choir that is all too willing to buy whatever it may be she wants to tell them.  Ultimately, it would appear that the director will not be satisfied until and unless she has completely destroyed the United States of America. 

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with the director.  Poitras said that funders of the documentary had to travel to Berlin (where she lives and works) in order to see a rough cut of the film in order to avoid interference from the U.S. government.  They viewed that version without knowing what the final cut would be like – mainly done for purposes of security.

Regarding shaping the interview scenes in the hotel room, she deferred to her editor, who added structure to the footage.  During the course of the interviews, the editor said that they shot something like 20 hours of footage.  She found it hard to cut down because there was so much valuable information and was constantly perplexed about where to make the choices.  Ultimately, the decision was made to follow a very clear narrative line.  She could not get in certain interesting details, such as Snowden’s opinions which, while eloquent, were not appropriate for the narrative they chose to follow. 

When asked about why there was a sense of urgency to break the story during the interview process in the safety of the hotel room, Poitras  said that she didn’t know Snowden was leaving until he had already left.  Additionally, the NSA would notice his absence for such a long period of time; that alone made the matter of breaking the story immediately more urgent. 

Citizenfour (2014) on IMDb

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