“Citizenfour” is a documentary I should have taken the time watch when it first came out in theaters back in 2014. For one reason or another, I just never got the chance to check it out and life got busier for me as it always does. As a result, my view on Edward Snowden, its chief subject, has remained neutral as I never knew what to make of him when the news of his revelations about the National Security Administration’s (NSA) illegal wiretapping were brought to the public. But with Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” now playing in theaters, the time had come to check out “Citizenfour” as it likely provides audiences with the most objective and unbiased view we could ever hope to have about this particular whistleblower.
Technically, “Citizenfour” is a documentary, but it also works as a nail-biting thriller as we watch Snowden and others doing interviews in secret, but we always wonder why the phone keeps ringing and why the fire alarm keeps going off. Is everyone in the hotel room under surveillance? Are there CIA or NSA agents ready to storm it? Might there be a government assassin prepared to take everyone out from a building across the way? In the movie “Strange Days,” Tom Sizemore told Ralph Fiennes the issue isn’t whether you’re paranoid, the issue is whether you’re paranoid enough. These days, that piece of dialogue is an amazing understatement.
This documentary was directed by Laura Poitras who knows all about being under intense government surveillance. She declares “Citizenfour” to be the final part of her post-9/11 trilogy which includes “My Country, My Country” about the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and “The Oath” which focused on Guantanamo and the “war on terror.” Since 2006, she has been placed on a secret watch list by the U.S. government and was constantly interrogated by border agents every time she traveled internationally. It got to where she had no choice but to move to Berlin in an effort to protect her footage from being confiscated. Suffice to say, “Citizenfour” is a documentary which would never have seen the light of day were these secret interviews conducted in America.
The title refers to the name Snowden used when he attempted to make contact with Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald. Eventually, the three meet in a Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden tells them, as well as The Guardian’s intelligence reporter Ewen MacAskill, all he knows about the U.S. government’s illegal wiretapping activities, and it is frightening to see just how far it goes.
What’s fascinating about “Citizenfour” is how calm and collected Snowden appears here as he divulges information which will eventually render him a traitor to many and a hero to others. It’s almost like a ticking time bomb as we are viewing his very last hours of anonymity as he will soon be revealed to the world as a whistleblower, and many will manipulate his image any way they can. But in this day and age, when everyone is so hooked on their cell phones and Facebook, aren’t we a little too quick to give up certain parts of our privacy? We have always felt something or somebody keeping an eye on us to where we accept the fact we are being watched, but we reveal more about ourselves now than we ever did in the past.
Poitras deserves a lot of credit for keeping a firm hand on the subject matter here as she gives “Citizenfour” a dark and ominous tone as we know how much Snowden’s revelations will rock the world. She is also aided by the use of Nine Inch Nails’ instrumental music from the “Ghosts” album which provides an electronic hum which keeps getting louder and louder as the truth is revealed and identities will be forever burned in our conscious minds.
By the time “Citizenfour” ends, the cat has been let out of the bag and Snowden finds himself living in Russia along with his girlfriend. The fact Poitras was able to get him back into the documentary before the end credits started rolling feels remarkable in hindsight. At this point, only he and Greenwald can communicate certain bits of information through pieces of paper which they later rip up. The battle to restore privacy has only just begun, and it will be a long time before it will be resolved. Whether it will be resolved fully is another story.
Poitras makes us see the reach of the U.S. government both through her own struggles and former NSA intelligence official William Binney whose own whistleblowing efforts had people bursting through his door with guns. President Barack Obama is shown in footage saying Snowden should have gone through legal channels and share his information legally, but when you take into account how other government whistleblowers have been treated, even he can’t guarantee Snowden can be brought in safely.
What is particularly frightening about “Citizenfour” is how the different parts of government are constantly watching one another to where it feels like trust in one another can seem like a rare commodity. It all brings us back to the “Watchmen” question, who watches the watchers? Everybody is watching each other, and in many ways it doesn’t matter who the President is because the NSA appears to run by their own rules and no government oversight can easily stop them in their tracks.
Opinions on Snowden still differ as some see him as a hero and others as a traitor. “Citizenfour,” however, shows him to be a selfless man eager to right the wrongs made by people who have betrayed the public’s trust. The fact that Poitras was able to get this documentary made let alone released is astounding, and it should be required viewing for all Americans. At the very least, she, Snowden and Greenwald deserve credit for bringing this wiretapping issue to light as there needs to be more discussion about it. We are still feeling the aftereffects of these revelations, and the dominoes keep on falling. While it helps to have all kinds of information to combat those who threaten our livelihood, you eventually have to wonder if it is worth the price.
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Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.