LOS ANGELES — When Glenn Greenwald took the stage at the Academy Awards Sunday night for Best Documentary Feature winner Citizenfour — about how he and the film’s director, Laura Poitras, met with former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden in Hong Kong — it was a triumphant moment for the investigative journalist in what has already been the biggest story of his career.
That moment, however, appeared to some to be immediately undercut when host Neil Patrick Harris followed up Citizenfour’s win with a pointed joke about Snowden, who has been living in exile in Russia since shortly after news of his disclosures first broke in June 2013. As Greenwald, Poitras, and producer Dirk Wilutzky were leaving the stage at the Dolby Theater, Harris quipped that Snowden “couldn’t be here for some treason.”
When asked about Harris’ comment, Greenwald told BuzzFeed News at the Governors Ball following the Oscars, “I’m just gonna go ahead and treat it as a joke. I thought it was pretty pitiful, given Hollywood’s fondness for congratulating itself for doing things like standing up for McCarthyism and blacklists. So to just casually spew that sort of accusation against someone who’s not even charged with it, let alone convicted of it, I think is, you know, stupid and irresponsible.
“But I’m trying not to make too much out of it,” he concluded, before adding with a laugh, “Although I’m not succeeding.”
Still, Greenwald recognized that weathering awards season pageantry was worth the enormous exposure Citizenfour has received by winning an Academy Award.
“I genuinely feel like when we are given this [NSA] archive [by Snowden] and given the responsibility to report it, one of the responsibilities was to try and maximize the impact and to disseminate the information as widely as we could,” he said. “There are a lot of people who will only hear about these things and be exposed to the debate through the Oscars and through film, and so we just kind of see it as our responsibility to do it, as suffocating as it might be.” (Perhaps not coincidentally, Citizenfour, which has been playing in limited release, debuts on HBO on the day after the Oscars: Monday, Feb. 23, at 9 p.m. ET.)
The entire experience has been an uncanny one for Greenwald, who it’s safe to say never imagined his career would lead him to hold an Oscar on stage at the Academy Awards (though Greenwald technically was not one of the film’s named winners).
“We were worried about the door being kicked in and our source being taken away and about threats being made by the government against us,” Greenwald said. “I mean, the whole thing is obviously quite surreal, and just there’s a very weird juxtaposition between what we did and this outcome.”
Ironically, the part of the awards season experience that would seem to be the most difficult for Greenwald and Poitras — returning to the U.S. after living abroad for fear of arrest or detention by the government — has instead apparently been a cakewalk. Greenwald cited the detention of his partner David Miranda in London in Aug. 2013 and the media blowback it created for both the U.K. and U.S. governments as a possible reason for why he and Poitras haven’t been detained ever since they first traveled to the U.S. to accept a Polk Award, a major journalism prize, in April 2014.
“I think they paid a really high price for [detaining David] without much value, so they figured it just wasn’t worth it,” he said. “We timed the flight to arrive [for the Polk Awards] when the ceremony had begun so there’d be a room full of journalists waiting for us. … I think the government basically calculated the costs were just too high.” And if a room full of journalists was too high-profile for the U.S. government, then a Hollywood theater packed with A-list stars, from Clint Eastwood to Oprah Winfrey, was certainly going to be safe.
Apparently, Edward Snowden did not mind the joke. “To be honest, I laughed at NPH,” Snowden wrote on a Reddit AMA about Citizenfour. “I don’t think it was meant as a political statement, but even if it was, that’s not so bad.”
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