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The New Snowden Doc Shows We're Living In A Dystopian Future

Citizenfour is a nonfiction film that makes the present feel like science fiction. And it'll change your mind about paranoia.

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Edward Snowden picked the director for Citizenfour because she was already being watched.

Filmmaker Laura Poitras, courtesy of RADiUS-TWC

Laura Poitras didn't choose Edward Snowden as the subject of her new documentary Citizenfour; Edward Snowden came to her.

By early 2013, when the then–NSA contractor first contacted her under a pseudonym using encrypted email, Poitras had spent years on watch lists thanks to her past two films, the Oscar-nominated My Country, My Country and The Oath, documentaries she considers the first parts of a now-complete trilogy about post-9/11 America. Poitras was getting detained and searched whenever she left or returned to the U.S. As a surveillance target herself, she was someone Snowden figured would take what he had to say seriously.

Citizenfour, which opens in select theaters on Oct. 24, makes no attempt to be a broader or more balanced look at the effects and implications of Snowden's whistleblowing — it can't. It's too close and too immediate, unfolding over the last year and including updates right up to the present. Poitras, like Glenn Greenwald, is a part of the Snowden story, not an observer. She and Greenwald are the two journalists who met with the soon-to-be-famous 29-year-old in a Hong Kong hotel room, and who were the first to take the documents he provided and turn them into stories that continue to have global reverberations.

It feels like a present-day sci-fi thriller.

GCHQ satellites in Bude, England, courtesy of Trevor Paglen/RADiUS-TWC

The film is filled with reminders of how much of our lives take place digitally, and how vulnerable those channels actually are. Poitras includes excerpts from her communications with Snowden and Greenwald, read aloud or unfurling over the screen in text, sometimes preceded by a PGP key. "Assume your adversary is capable of one trillion guesses per second," Snowden warns in one of those early emails of the encryption precautions they're taking. "Understand that the above steps are not bulletproof, and are intended only to give us breathing room."

Holed up in the hotel room in which most of the movie takes place, Snowden covers himself with a blanket when typing something sensitive into his laptop to prevent what he calls "visual collection," and unplugs the VoIP phone after explaining it can be used to listen in on what's happening in the room. They are actions that feel extreme only until you consider what he did for a living.

Elsewhere in the film, hacktivist Jacob Appelbaum lectures a room full of Occupy Wall Street participants about how information is linked, so a debit purchase of a subway card can be used to fill out a portrait of someone's daily activity. Poitras makes time for eerie shots of satellite, intercept, and data collection locations around the world. It's reminiscent of (of all things) the '90s Will Smith action movie Enemy of the State, with less framing of people, but also less of a happy ending.

It's a nationless story about U.S. cyberespionage.

RADiUS-TWC

Snowden describes himself as a patriot in the film, which, toward the end, includes a news clip of President Obama saying he feels otherwise. But Citizenfour is a story about U.S. policies and agencies that have been exiled to international capitals and in-between spaces, like a megacity-hopping adaptation of a novel William Gibson has yet to write.

Not long after she began working with Snowden, Poitras moved to Berlin to prevent her footage from being seized. We see Greenwald in his adopted hometown of Rio de Janeiro, greeting his partner in the airport after the man was detained in the U.S. for hours. Snowden, of course, spent over a month in the Moscow airport before being granted asylum in Russia, where, the film discloses, his girlfriend Lindsay Mills has joined him.

Then there's that Hong Kong hotel room, chosen strategically in a location with two layers of government in order to complicate U.S. actions. It's an anonymous space that feels, in the movie, like the world is bearing down on it. Its inhabitants watch the news erupt on TV as Greenwald's first story is filed, as Snowden tracks on his laptop what's happening to his loved ones as his identity is discovered, and as, hours later, reporters finally physically come calling. The world feels hauntingly within reach and far away at once.

Its battles are fought on laptops.

Edward Snowden, courtesy of RADiUS-TWC

Whether you think of Edward Snowden as a hero, as a traitor, or as something more complicated, Citizenfour makes a case for his utter sincerity in his convictions, in his beliefs that, as he puts it, "we are building the greatest weapon for oppression in the history of man," and that easily changeable policy is all that stands in the way of that so-called weapon being abused. There's a nobility to how unassuming he is in that hotel room, and how certain he is that he's headed toward doom thanks to his decisions. If there's the potential for self-aggrandizement in those qualities as well, the way the globe seems to converge on him doesn't make it look so unearned.

Snowden doesn't cut an outsized figure. He's a guy who spends most of his time on a computer, and he looks like it. And Citizenfour, for all its tension and occasional frustrating narrowness, does compellingly present a world where wars over privacy and espionage, individual power versus states, are being fought over data streams and devices. This rings true even if, ironically, its final conversation about the emergence of a new informant involves pen and paper. When everything's gone digital, there's still use for analog after all.

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