When you hear that CITIZENFOUR is a really good documentary about Edward Snowden, you don’t really picture what it actually is. Or at least I didn’t.
I figured it would be a really powerful documentary about the exiled NSA whistleblower and the programs he exposed, the issues they raise about privacy, governmental overreach and technology. It would be really upsetting at times, sometimes shocking, it would use news footage and interviews to tell this story. Hopefully a well put together version of these advocacy documentaries that draw our attention to an important thing going on in the world and tell us some facts about it that we might not’ve known, get us real riled up.
Well, it’s most of those things, except it’s not at all a talking head documentary. What I didn’t know going in is that this movie is part of the leak itself. Before Snowden even met with journalist Glenn Greenwald about the National Security Agency secretly working with telecommunications companies to spy on the phone calls and emails of Americans not even suspected of any crimes, he contacted documentary director Laura Poitras to document it. So this is not a movie telling the story of what happened. This is actual footage of it happening.
The filmatism is also better than in many political documentaries. I was a little put off by the opening text, a first-person message from Poitras about this being part of a post 9-11 trilogy. But I quickly forgave that as the movie began to build an eerie atmosphere with its droning feedback sounds, God’s-eye-view shots of cities, clandestine footage of secret data interception bases and cryptic emails glowing on her monitor.
But most of the movie is more intimate, because it takes place inside a hotel room in Hong Kong, where Snowden meets with Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill from The Guardian for the first time after a bunch of spy movie type sneaking around and using code words. He would be the guy in the cafe playing with a Rubik’s Cube. That cloak and dagger part was not filmed, it’s mostly him sitting in a hotel chair or on a bed. You will be pretty familiar with the mole on his neck and the birthmark on his arm by the time this is over. But the camera operators do a good job of focusing in on different details to keep it from being too visually static.
For a couple days they sit in that room, Snowden tells them what he knows, they take notes. He’s obviously a very smart guy, and he’s very good at explaining how things operate at his job, what capabilities they have, why it worries him, what he expects to happen to him. He seems like he’d make a good teacher. (In Russia.) I like the parts where he takes their laptops and shows them how to cover their tracks a little more. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next BOURNE movie takes some influence from this.
Then Greenwald will go away and post some stories, talk about them on cable news, come back to the room. Snowden sits quietly tapping on his keyboard as he learns from his girlfriend (who he felt he had to abandon without notice while she was on vacation) what’s going on back at what was his home. We see him watch the story unfold on CNN. We see him try to come up with a disguise, and then discover that he’s been found by the media anyway.
Snowden laughs about how nervous he is at first, but he seems very calm. I think about things I’ve done in my life that made me a wreck, and none of them were on the level of overnight making myself a target for the U.S. and other governments, knowing that I may be imprisoned and if not will probly never see my family or country again.
It’s amazing how much the tension can mount even though we know this is a real guy who is still alive and in the wild. The more his information hits the news, and the more he tells us about their capabilities, the more paranoid you start to get. At one point he explains how modern phones can be used to bug a room even when not in use! Because of what they’re up to they have to take every odd occurrence (phone calls, fire alarms) as a possible sign that the Man is onto them. Every time he walked near the window I would feel a little nervous, even though in my brain I knew for a fact he wasn’t gonna get shot.
Well, unless he got sniped and replaced by a lookalike. That would be pretty unsettling in my opinion if that happened in the movie. Don’t worry, it doesn’t, unless it’s a deleted scene. I’ll keep a lookout for that when it comes out on video.
Before seeing the movie my feeling about Snowden was that he seems like kind of a douche, but that what he did was right. After seeing the movie I no longer have to make that separation, because I don’t think he’s a douche. He does not seem to be in it for the glory. He doesn’t make grandstanding speeches, or seem to revel in the drama of all the spycraft. He tends to laugh about what an extreme situation he’s put himself into, like he can hardly believe it, but oh well, that’s life.
He’s also very aware of that douche factor. Greenwald’s instinct is to do whatever he can to keep his source anonymous, but Snowden makes it clear from the beginning that his being found out is inevitable and that no one should suffer to protect him. But for the first few days he prefers to keep himself out of it so the story will be about the programs and not about him. That his personality and politics would become the distraction, the fake issue that some of the coverage would focus on. He was right.
There’s a Snowden-less scene in the movie, an Occupy Wall Street organizer’s meeting, used to explain the concept of how “metadata” can track a political protester or other citizen’s movements and potentially be used to incriminate them if something criminal happens near them. And I have to admit that even a lefty like myself felt some prejudices kicking in seeing how much these people fit the stereotype of leftist New York hipsters. That’s a trick that works on most of us. Make us reject the person to keep us away from the issue. It happens all over the place. Gee, I would be against corporate capitalism/war/police brutality, but I don’t want to be on the team with those smelly anarchist kids and phonies. It’s an innate human weakness. We turn into a bunch of bitchy teenagers worrying about cliques. We have to remember that the issue is not whether or not we would hang out with Snowden. It would be better if we didn’t even know who he was, but that ship has sailed.
There are some other scenes that show the global creep of digital surveillance from different angles. There’s an intense scene in a circuit court where a living stereotype of a weaselly federal lawyer (he’s even wearing a bow tie!) makes the argument that the courts shouldn’t even hear this case about a phone company illegally sharing information because it would compromise national security. The judges are in disbelief at this asshole, but do they have the balls to shut him down? You see the guy in close up, on cinema-quality cameras, it kinda feels like you’re standing next to him. It’s a discussion with monumental stakes, but it’s so… tiny. It’s in a small room, in front of a few people. This is where these things happen, and usually we never hear about it because we don’t know to pay attention, and nobody puts it in a movie for us.
One thing I’ve wondered is how Snowden feels about finding asylum in Russia, which we believe to be a more invasive and abusive government than our own. Did he see it as a necessary sacrifice to keep his home from going further down that road, even though he’ll probly never return there? The movie doesn’t give us an answer to that, but it doesn’t seem like he expected to end up there. For all his planning he does seem pretty uncertain about where he’ll end up. Actually, he seems to plan to be in prison.
I think the shocking thing about these leaks was not so much what they revealed, but just the fact that we now knew for sure. Personally I had long assumed they were doing things like that. If you ever read my book
Niketown (paid advertisement) you’ll see I don’t use the word “metadata” but I have the government getting information from private companies and I show a way in which this sort of data profiling could be used harmfully. I’d been working on that book for years and when I read about Snowden I thought I had to hurry up and get that manuscript polished before it seemed like old hat. CAPTAIN AMERICA & THE WINTER SOLDIER has a version of it too. And Snowden points out that people often joke about the government reading their emails, or about getting put on a list for something they say or write. That our half-acceptance of it as a fact of life is tragic.
I’ve only heard politicians express this before, but I’m sure there are also private citizens who think Snowden is a traitor. That these programs are designed to protect us from terrorism, and it’s wrong to expose them to our enemies. In the movie we see President Obama express something like this at a press conference, saying that all this stuff was already under review anyway with an eye toward maintaining a balance between security and personal freedom. But that’s an uncharacteristically full-of-shit comment from Obama. He’s basically saying you know what, we’re looking into whether or not it’s bad for the government to illegally monitor you and everyone you know just in case and for companies to illegally give up information on you, and if it is then we’ll take care of it and if it’s not we’ll keep doing it and either way don’t worry your pretty little head about it. This goes against his usual philosophy that we have the right to make intelligent decisions based on good information.
Such a massive intrusion at least deserves a public debate. Is it worth taking away that much freedom in order to protect us? That really is a question to me, it’s not necessarily cut and dry. Because most of me hates the surveillance state we live in, the proliferation of cameras everywhere, in buildings, in traffic lights, in everybody’s hands. But another part of me was pretty damn happy they could pore over all that shit to identify and track those two assholes that set bombs off at the Boston Marathon. There’s an argument to be made for this stuff. But let’s have that argument.
We really have to consider whether the possibility of using this tool to catch bad guys is worth the risk of its potential for abuse. If you don’t think the government currently goes after innocent people for their politics, are you really sure it will stay that way under all future administrations? What would Nixon have done to the people on his enemies list if he’d had this kind of access to their lives? How far do you think Martin Luther King would’ve gotten if they had this shit to smear him with? Not far, I bet.
I think domestic spying is a hugely important issue that we all need to pay more attention to. But what’s amazing about CITIZENFOUR is that it would still be an interesting movie without that. This is a historical document. It’s like if some Maysles Brothers types had been invited to follow Deep Throat around when he first contacted Woodward and Bernstein. And it’s fascinating just as a procedural. We get to see step-by-step how they go about revealing this information to the world, what their strategy is, what they’re concerned about as their plan unfolds. I’ve never seen a movie like that before.
I’ll be recommending this to everybody I can. In fact, I gotta go stand near my phone and talk it up to the NSA guys, in case they’re not already getting this as I write it.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.