If you're not necessarily someone who believes Edward Snowden was a hero or a patriot, or are not sure you believe in what he and other whistleblowers have been doing these last few years, the good thing about Citizenfour is that it's such a compelling and superbly made film that you can watch this without agreeing with it and still be entertained by it.
Laura Poitras was one of the three people in personal contact with Edward Snowden at the time that he decided to leak thousands of government documents that he stole from the NSA in 2013- and her new film shows us what it was like to be on the inside with the man in question, the one everybody was talking about as he dealt with the events of that week in real time. It's a fascinating and intensely gripping thriller, if not exactly revelatory, except perhaps about who Snowden is as a person. We all remember when this happened, it was less than two years ago- what Poitras' film shows us is what was going on on the other side. She pulls together footage of interviews with Snowden as he hid out in his hotel room in Hong Kong, while she and handpicked blogger Glenn Greenwald were the only people with access to him. He explains to them why he's doing this and why he thinks it's important- and he comes across as not disingenuous in his intentions, while also not exactly a firebreathing crusader (unlike say, the self-aggrandizing Greenwald, who spends the movie practically salivating at the chance to publicly take credit for his once-in-a-lifetime scoop).
We don't find out a whole lot about Snowden personally, and perhaps that's because he wanted it that way. What he thinks is the story, and the most important factor, is the content of the documents he's handing over to the journalists, and the revelations about widespread wiretapping and spying the NSA and other governments (the UK comes across just as bad if not worse) have been doing to their own citizens in the years after 9/11. This is a documentary with a clearly articulated point-of-view, and Poitras airs the arguments of Snowden, Greenwald and others who feel adamantly that civil liberties are being not just infringed upon, but systematically chipped away at. It's a debate that will be familiar to anyone who's been following the news for the last year and a half, and no real effort is made to indulge the other side of the argument ("national security" is a term practically scoffed at and dismissed entirely by Greenwald in one particularly long, sanctimonious lecture he gives to the Brazilian press late in the movie).
But films with a point of view can lead to better filmmaking, and the politics of this movie, while of course important and essential to our national debate, are beside the point no matter what side of the spectrum you fall on, because the movie is just so entertaining and frankly, exciting to watch. Poitras' footage being in real time allows us to feel the urgency and anxiety that Snowden felt as he sat around for days in that hotel room, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Her secret communications with him after he's smuggled out of the country give us a sense of anxious anticipation, felt on her side when she realizes she's being followed. And the various cameos by familiar figures like Julian Assange and Jeremy Scahill provide the plot with complications and twists as it makes a bigger point about the new atmosphere of crusading whistleblowers and civil liberties champions who promise to continue taking on powerful governments in the name of preventing what they see as potential dictatorships forming in an era where power is accumulated through secret surveillance.
The tension is expertly wrought and the movie is so professionally put together in the order of the actual chronological events that it feels less like a documentary and more like a real life conspiracy thriller. For the entertainment value alone, this is a great movie to see- and whether or not it teaches you anything new about the state of government surveillance in our society (for me it didn't), it still raises the questions and keeps the debate relevant, which is indeed a worthy goal.
* * * 1/2