The fire alarm goes off for 3 seconds. It stops. That’s better.
The alarm sounds again.
I know nothing happens to Edward Snowden. To this day he is alive and well (that is, as well as you could be in his unique set of circumstances). I know that no harm will befall Snowden, for it would’ve been documented and published long ago. Nothing bad will happen, and everything will be ok.
So, the question remains……… why am I sweating so profusely?
Herein lies a microcosm of Citizenfour’s appeal: despite knowing the general pathway of Snowden’s journey from NSA employee to enemy of the USA government, the intimate access director Laura Poitras is granted into Snowden’s life at its turning point makes for enthralling and, quite simply, must-see cinema.
Indeed, Citizenfour offers quite the unique cinematic experience, as defining moments in political history (let alone history in general) have seldom been captured in such intimacy PRECEDING their entry into public knowledge. Being in such close proximity to Snowden, prior to his face being plastered on newscasts the world over, allows for an in-depth exploration of the mentality and temperament of so-called ‘whistle blowers’. These individuals are fully aware of the ability of intelligence agencies to surveil anyone that arouses their interests, and it’s undoubtedly chilling to watch the mind of Snowden race when he suspects his hotel fire alarm has gone off simply to lure him out of the building.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Poitras’ documentary is the care that begins to emerge for the characters other than Snowden. Journalist Glenn Greenwald, for example, earns sympathy and respect for his willingness to persevere in covering Snowden’s leaks, despite being hounded and targeted (his partner is at one point detained in an airport for 9 hours) more than he ever has or likely ever will be for the remainder of his career. Furthermore, Poitras’ role is largely off-screen, but merely viewing text that explains her returning home to Berlin because she is being followed is enough to warrant concern for her plight.
Of course, as is the case with these documentaries, take everything you witness here with a sizeable grain of salt. Much like Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, everything being filmed and expressed maintains an aura of positivity when concerning its key subject (in this case Snowden), and encourages disdain for all those opposed to him. Whilst for the most part Poitras doesn’t make this blatantly obvious, there are moments (a close up shot of torn and crumpled paper with the initials ‘POTUS’ scarwled across it) that are removed from anything within the realm of subtlety.
Nevertheless, Poitras has demonstrated considerable courage in capturing this event with such intimacy, and the experience of seeing Edward Snowden’s mindset and body language prior to and following one of the biggest political leaks in human history is one that warrants, and indeed demands, attentive viewing.
Director: Laura Poitras
Stars: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney
Originally published on davidzita.net on 17th February, 2015