Sad that it was only because of the Oscar win that I decided to watch Citizenfour, the face-to-face documentary about Edward Snowden and the journalists who brought this story about NSA surveillance and invasion of privacy to public light. To be frank, I was pretty ignorant about these events and this story, only having heard the name of former NSA employee Snowden as a famous whistle-blower, but this film is so close to the “action” that I could not help but be thoroughly absorbed by the events. Director Laura Poitras was also directly involved, having received encrypted emails from Snowden, arranging to meet with her team and a few journalists to provide them with the documentation of how the US National Security Agency had worked with prominent tech companies to capture and access all manner of electronic communication from countless people (American and non-American).
The film starts at that critical point where they are meeting with Snowden in the hotel in Hong Kong and he is gradually starting to share his information with them (and for the first while I was a bit confused about what was going on). Snowden comes across well: an intelligent, articulate, and even noble figure. I can’t stress how much this film being right there in the hotel room with Snowden makes it totally fascinating. I was experiencing the anxiety with him. When he was acting calm, I felt more relaxed as well. It really made everything more real (which is, I guess, one of the objectives of a good documentary).
Considering the magnitude of what was revealed by Snowden, and the shockwaves that were sent around the world, this film takes a relatively light hand to that information. There is not much editorial content added beyond a few bits of informational text. For the most part, Poitras is content to simply show what is happening. She also doesn’t amp up the suspense to make these events any more sensational than they needed to be. There are a few moments of tension, including when there is a suspicious fire alarm after Snowden disconnects the hotel room phone, and when he hears from his partner about how she is being questioned and possibly observed back the US. But Snowden and the others act so matter-of-fact that it seems like nothing out of the ordinary. It definitely doesn’t play out like a John LeCarre novel (as was referenced by some TV news footage).
In the end, Poitras concludes by showing how other countries are investigating the NSA’s surveillance of their citizens, and also how Snowden has perhaps made it possible for others to come forward. Even though this film obviously wasn’t where this information all broke, its no-barrier approach, and speak-for-yourself tone was powerful and really added thoughtful depth to these events and issues. As for someone like me who was blissfully unaware, this film is an eye-opening wake-up and well worth watching (4 out of 5).