Connect with us
citizenfour documentary review
Image: Radius-TWC

Film

There’s More Globetrotting in Citizenfour than a James Bond Adventure

Witness the event that changed history: The Edward Snowden revelations.

Citizenfour Seethes with Paranoia and Anger

Citizenfour functions not only as a great primer on the Edward Snowden NSA case, but also as a straight espionage-thriller.  While at times self-aggrandizing and frustratingly vague, Laura Poitras’ documentary is never less than fascinating, frightening and infuriating.  This is a must-see for political wonks and average citizens, alike.

When documentarian, Laura Poitras, started receiving emails back in 2013 from an NSA insider calling himself “CITIZENFOUR,” her journalistic Spidey-senses must have started tingling.  A few months later, after spending eight eventful days in Hong Kong with 29-year-old Edward Snowden, she was at the epicenter of arguably the biggest intelligence scandal in United States history.  Galvanized by the events of September 11th, 2001, government agencies from around the world, most notably the National Security Agency (NSA), coordinated with private telecommunication companies to stockpile huge reserves of personal data.  Snowden, backed by literally millions of digital and paper documents, alleged that the government was spying on the general citizenry, not just “people of interest,” and that this surveillance extended to nearly every area of people’s lives.

Even for a seasoned professional like Guardian reporter, Glenn Greenwald, these were serious allegations.  As the revelations unfold, the tension and paranoia mount for Snowden and his confessors.  Snowden knows that exposing duplicity at the highest levels of government means his life is going to change, and it won’t be for the better.  He stares out his hotel window, scanning the horizon for invisible enemies.  Looking over his shoulder was the price of enlightening the world, and Snowden was willing to pay it.

It’s rare that a documentary is released while the fire it lit is still burning.  In fact, the raw immediacy of Citizenfour is its primary appeal.  Snowden’s leaks, and eventual unmasking, occurred barely a year ago, with Poitras capturing every second of the action.  Thanks to the prevalence of digital recording, the prism of time have shrunk from years and months to days and minutes.  Nobody understands this principle better than Snowden, who speaks ominously of real-time images delivered from drones directly to computer screens around the globe.  Just who controls this information and how they decide to use it is what finally pushed him out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

Citizenfour (2014)
Image: Radius-TWC

There’s more globetrotting in Citizenfour than a James Bond adventure.  We zip from Belgium to Hong Kong, with stops in Germany and Brazil for good measure.  Poitras reveals the story on multiple fronts, delivering the information in easily digested chunks.  We want her to go deeper, but that isn’t her objective.  This is merely the entry point to a larger story that will continue to evolve over time.  A story that is bigger than Snowden, or Greenwald, or even the NSA.  A story about the threat posed to a democracy when the government spies on its own citizens.

Bias is woven into the fabric of this film; it is quite clear from the outset how the filmmakers feel about Snowden and the information he has revealed.  There is a degree of self-congratulations, of course, but this is secondary to the journalistic fervor and a refreshing jolt of anarchy.  An overwhelming fear of the unknown permeates everything we see and hear.  There is more tension in the opening narration of Citizenfour than the entirety of most horror films.  For everyone involved, there is truly no turning back, and Poitras captures that terrifying exhilaration perfectly.

Regardless of how you feel about Snowden’s deeds, it’s impossible to not hyper-analyze Snowden, the man.  Poitras steadfastly refuses to give us a personal insight into his character, making us, instead, glean all we can from his behavior.  We gather he is a precise individual, consumed, perhaps, by detail and protocol.  He sits beneath a blanket to enter passwords on his laptop and refuses to correspond via email unless the encryption device meets with his approval.  As he poses in front of the mirror, fussing with his uncooperative hair, we wonder if he’s just a vain, self-absorbed boy looking for attention.  When he talks, he speaks precisely and with authority, yet he often appears disheveled and lazy.  He’s a puzzle left open to interpretation, and your perception will likely be shaped by your own opinions about his actions.

Much like a Marvel movie or a comic book franchise, Citizenfour feels like the origin story for something much larger to come.  We know the main characters now—Snowden, Greenwald, the NSA—what remains to be seen are the continued ramifications for their actions.  Will new heroes and villains emerge?  Is there a secret lair hidden on some remote outpost of the globe?  What makes this such a riveting and essential documentary is the realization that this isn’t spy fiction… this is real.  Citizenfour hammers home a sobering truth about the technology we all love; it makes our movements extremely easy to track and anticipate.  The pros and cons of living in a digital world with maximum “linkability” need to be discussed, and films like this will lead the way.  Educational, exciting and essential viewing.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.

Written By

J.R. Kinnard is a film critic and aspiring screenwriter living in Seattle, Washington. He's also a chemist by trade who works in an environmental laboratory. You can find his film reviews at PopOptiqSound and Motion Magazine, and CutPrintFilm. His personal blog, Apropos of Nothing, features his thoughts on film and music. You can find him on Facebook at jrkinnard, and on Twitter @jrkinnard.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Facebook

Trending

Apple 1984 Super Bowl Ad Apple 1984 Super Bowl Ad

A Look Back At The Most Famous Super Bowl Commercial 1984 Directed by Ridley Scott

TV

Greatest-Super-Bowl-Commercials-of-All-Time Greatest-Super-Bowl-Commercials-of-All-Time

A History of The Greatest Super Bowl Commercials of All Time

TV

Greatest Royal Rumble Matches of All time Greatest Royal Rumble Matches of All time

Greatest Royal Rumble Matches

Wrestling

The Best Romantic Comedies The Best Romantic Comedies

Happy Valentine’s Day: Here are the 50 Best Romantic Comedies

Film

best Super Bowl halftime shows in history best Super Bowl halftime shows in history

The 15 Best Super Bowl Halftime Shows in History 

TV

Greatest Romantic Comedies Greatest Romantic Comedies

Happy Valentine’s Day: Here are the 50 Best Romantic Comedies

Film

Videodrome Videodrome

Videodrome is a Different Kind of Modern Classic

Film

The Best TV Shows That Premiered After A Super Bowl The Best TV Shows That Premiered After A Super Bowl

The Best TV Shows That Premiered After A Super Bowl

TV

Quentin Tarantino’s New Book Cinema Speculation, is a Groovy Read Quentin Tarantino’s New Book Cinema Speculation, is a Groovy Read

Quentin Tarantino’s New Book Cinema Speculation is a Groovy Read

Culture

The Last of Us Infected The Last of Us Infected

The Last of Us Looks for Love in a Hopeless Place with “Infected”

TV

Hear Me Out Hear Me Out

Hear Me Out Never Finds Its Own Voice

Film

Kaleidoscope Kaleidoscope

Kaleidoscope (2023): How the Newest Hypnotic Netflix Toy Stumbles with its Unique Format

TV

Bill Nighy is a Living Marvel in This Kurosawa Remake

Culture

The Last of Us When You're Lost in the Darkness The Last of Us When You're Lost in the Darkness

The Last of Us Begins with the Bleak, Familiar “When You’re Lost in the Darkness”

TV

Sundance 2023: The Eight Must-See Films at the Festival

Culture

maxwell jacob friedman maxwell jacob friedman

MJF and Three Potential First-Time Feuds for 2023 

Culture

Connect