CITIZENFOUR, Laura Poitras’ latest documentary, starts with an anonymous email and some ominous music. As the opening credits roll, we see a series of lights, bright against a pitch-black background. These lights are the lights in a Hong Kong tunnel – Hong Kong being the city that Laura finally meets up with a high profile whistlebower, at the start of the film someone unknown. As it turns out, and as we all now know, the anonymous email was from Edward Snowden. He wants Poitras and investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald to work with him in the leaking of confidential documents that prove that the National Security Agency has been invading the privacy of American citizens. They have been collecting metadata on such a scale that they know all your text messages, all your phone calls, even what you type into Google. They know your location and whom you are speaking to. They do all this, and yet they deny over and over again in court that they do not.1
Poitras’ documentary starts out much like a thriller. The anonymous emails she receives from Snowden, in which he identifies himself as ‘Citizenfour’ are lit up on the screen in white text against a black background. Words like ‘victimisation’, ‘hands of a system’ and ‘unrestricted secret police’ are bandied around. It’s reminiscent of The Matrix. She reads these emails out as a voiceover. It’s all very dramatic. Incidentally, Poitras’ voice is very similar to Kristen Stewart’s, rendering the start of the documentary a little similar to a trailer for Twilight. Thankfully, the similarities stop there.
The film then jumps to a speech by William Binney, who worked for the NSA for 37 years. His speech lays the background to Snowden’s leak. Binney talks about the how a week after 9/11 the NSA started its widespread surveillance program, starting with the collection of telecom data (with the cooperation of the telecom firms) and then expanding after that. It sounds like a conspiracy theory, though with the benefit of hindsight we know that it’s not. Binney refused to participate in the program, which he considered to be an unconstitutional invasion of privacy. As a result his family home was raided and threatened, he says “they came in with guns drawn.” Anecdotes like this are effective at bringing the situation close to home. It is one thing for the NSA to keep tabs on everyone (not just US citizens, but also anyone in the world who is in communication with US citizens), but it is another for them to threaten anyone who speaks out against such a policy. In the US, as in Australia, free speech is a right that we often take for granted.
CITIZENFOUR is an entertaining and suspenseful documentary. There is one scene when Poitras and Greenwald are holed up in a hotel room in Hong Kong with Snowden, interviewing him. Snowden points to the phone on the hotel table and notes that these phones can be turned into microphones, so that even when you’re not on the phone the NSA can listen to your conversation. When he goes to type his password into his computer, he puts a red sheet over his head and his computer. You start to laugh, because Snowden looks absolutely ridiculous, but you catch yourself because you think, what if the NSA is watching him? Who knows where the cameras are? If the NSA is indeed conducting its widespread surveillance program, such behaviour can no longer be considered evidence of paranoia. Snowden is not paranoid, rather it is us who are ignorant, naïve, or just complacent.
Poitras asks Snowden repeatedly how he is feeling. However, that is as deep as she probes, and it is perhaps difficult to extract much insight into a person’s psychology by asking them over and over again, “How are you feeling?” At times, it almost feels like Poitras feels sorry for Snowden, such that she doesn’t want to add more stress to his life. This is fair enough. As we watch him realise that the government have discovered his identity and where he is staying, we feel for him. He says that he knew this was going to happen, but still he seems anxious, and it would have been fascinating for Poitras to probe that further.
By the end of the film, Poitras’ portrait of Snowden is little more than two-dimensional. We know that he believes in democracy and freedom. We know that he hasn’t told anyone about leaking the NSA documents in an effort to protect them. When he says that he will need to distance himself from his family in order to keep them safe, he sounds like some sort of superhero. He even looks sort of like a superhero. Even when he’s stuck in a hotel room, Snowden is handsome and relaxed. As a whistleblower, Snowden clearly has strong moral principles, but it is difficult to believe that he would never have questioned the implications of what he was doing, or the impact it would have on his life and on those closest to him.
This was, for me, the main disappointment of the film. CITIZENFOUR is exciting to watch because of its premise – in the making of the documentary, Poitras was involved a real life spy thriller. However, the characterisation of Snowden is stilted and fails to humanise him. Ultimately, we are left with a cipher.
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