Director: Laura Poitras
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Every weekday, I hop on a Chicago Transit Authority train for my hour-long commute to and from work. My fellow commuters pass the time in a variety of ways—sleeping, staring out the window, reading a book or newspaper, talking to a fellow passenger. However, the majority of them use their commute to text, check email, play games, browse the Internet, listen to music, and do the myriad other things smart phones have made possible in this miraculous age of technology. They also do one thing they may not realize they are doing—provide the U.S. government with abundant information not only about themselves, but also about the people and places they know and frequent.
We know this is happening and how because in 2013, a 29-year-old contractor for the National Security Administration (NSA) named Edward Snowden provided Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, then both reporters for the British newspaper The Guardian, with thousands of documents that offered ironclad evidence of the widespread, highly invasive government surveillance program being conducted by the NSA on American citizens and foreign nationals—including heads of state—around the world. How we came to know what the government never meant for us to know is the shocking, compelling, and utterly engrossing story of Citizenfour, easily the best and most important American documentary since Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976), though I expect a timid AMPAS will find some less-explosive documentary to honor with an Oscar, one whose director can safely accept it in person. Director Laura Poitras now lives in Berlin, having moved there several years ago after suffering repeated government harassment dating back to 2006, when she started producing films dealing with life in the United States following the 9/11 attacks. Poitras was essentially drafted to make this documentary because “citizenfour,” the alias Snowden used when he first contacted Poitras, says she self-selected as the recipient of his information based on the films she’s made.
Citizenfour presents an almost perfect balance of the disclosures that tore the veil surrounding the massive surveillance programs of the NSA and its even more effective cousin in the U.K., the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), and the human drama of the whistleblowing experience for both Snowden and the journalists who made his disclosures public. The intriguing cloak-and-dagger beginning—white-lettered email messages typed on a black background and masses of code scrolling their way up the screen—pulls one into the story. Poitras’ voiceover recitation of these and other messages are as far as she intrudes into the narrative, though her participation is absolutely pivotal to the end result.
After following instructions on how to secure her communications, Poitras receives a series of encrypted emails that outline the scope of the information Snowden plans to share with her; each allegation is appended with the assurance, “I can prove this.” She is encouraged to bring Greenwald into her work. Snowden contacted Greenwald first, but refused to proceed when they were unable to communicate securely. Eventually, Poitras, Greenwald, and MacAskill travel to Hong Kong to meet Snowden and discuss the way they intend to share the information with the public. Her camera focuses on Greenwald as he sets up for the first filmed interview with Snowden in his suite in the Mira Hotel—it’s thrilling to get to know this maverick at the same moment in film time as Poitras and Greenwald do.
Snowden is younger than the reporters expected. He’s good-looking in a geeky kind of way, intelligent, and articulate. He’s realistically paranoid, unplugging his hotel room’s phone because, he reveals, modern phones have a chip that acts as a room bug whether you’re on the phone or not. Most important, he’s principled. He was welcomed into the halls of power with the highest security clearances available in the NSA, and he was horrified by what he saw. He observed the massively invasive nature of programs like PRISM and Tempora that were collecting data from everyone, not just suspected terrorists and, crucially, being run entirely in secret. Remembering the early days of the Internet when young students and university professors from all over the world could freely converse with one another, he is appalled by what this democratic tool has become. He displays a surprising degree of humility, deferring with a touching amount of trust to Greenwald, MacAskill, and Poitras in all things journalistic. He says he wants to reveal his identity early to prevent our personality-driven media from focusing on a manhunt rather than the information he’s disclosing. He knows he will have to give up his home and family, maybe forever, and has done what he can to protect those he loves, though he is distraught about the effect his disappearance will have, especially on his long-time girlfriend. His hope is that his actions will inspire others to come forward.
Poitras puts the story in a brief, but effective context. She takes viewers from the 9/11 attacks through early hearings about NSA abuses, showing archival footage of former NSA intelligence official William Binney revealing in the early 2000s that the organization, through its Stellar Wind program, was spying on American citizens illegally. Importantly, Binney, a double-amputee, remembers FBI agents storming into his home with guns drawn: “I don’t know why.” Then Snowden explains the spying capabilities of the NSA and GCHQ programs in a fairly easy-to-follow way. These explanations may no longer be necessary for most viewers of crime TV dramas, as CCTV is ubiquitous in British programs and real-time video capture from cellphones was part of a storyline in the Nov. 9, 2014, episode of CSI; nonetheless, it’s helpful to know that the metadata that we are always assured protects our identities has been jettisoned in favor of personally identifiable data collected on a routine, daily basis.
Snowden’s caution—he admonishes Greenwald for having too short a password for his computer and Poitras for leaving an SD card in her computer drive for several days—doesn’t seem far-fetched in this context and once his revelations become public in The Guardian and are picked up by media around the world. As Snowden watches Greenwald being interviewed on CNN, his concern for his own safety and the sheer magnitude of what he’s done reflect on his pensive, worried face. Poitras is followed in Hong Kong, causing her to cancel plans to do additional filming and return to Berlin, and Snowden is whisked from his warren at the hotel to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Hong Kong, then to a safe house, and finally to Russia with the help of WikiLeaks.
Following this rapid-fire series of events, the authorities start to get their wits about them. Greenwald testifies in his adopted country of Brazil about U.S. spying in that country; Greenwald’s partner is detained for nine harrowing hours at Heathrow Airport. Snowden is charged in the United States with “willful communication of classified intelligence with an unauthorized person” under the Espionage Act of 1917; President Obama says Snowden should return to the United States where he will be treated with all the rights and privileges to which he’s entitled in the U.S. justice system. We are then treated to a meeting of ACLU lawyers and others looking into Snowden’s legal defense who say that choosing to charge Snowden under this 100-year-old law enacted during time of war allows the government so much discretion that they would not be able to mount an effective defense.
The film’s cumulative effect is deeply discouraging. High-level government officials, including then NSA Director Keith Alexander, are shown apparently lying to Congress. Big-name electronic communications companies like Google, Yahoo, and Verizon are revealed to have provided, either voluntarily or through some form of coercion, whatever the NSA has asked for. The sheer numbers are almost too large to comprehend: 1.2 million Americans on a security watch list, 200 million text messages captured per day, thousands of terabytes of data captured and available for mining now or in the future.
Nonetheless, Poitras is a true believer who knows how to encourage audiences that even this seemingly insatiable machine of high-level control can be fought. A nighttime shot of Snowden in his new home in Russia reveals that the girlfriend he clearly loves very much has joined him in exile. Further, Snowden learns from Greenwald that someone else has taken the big risk to come forward. Together in another hotel room, the two talk and write down messages. Poitras tantalizingly films brief glimpses of the sheets of paper. Nothing is explicit except a diagram that shows boxes and arrows that point to a final box around the acronym “POTUS.” Both Greenwald and Snowden smile—courage inspired, mission accomplished.