FILM REVIEW | CitizenFour16th December 2014
★★★★★ | CitizenFour
After you have watched Laura Poitras’s powerful documentary on the NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden you will never want to use your bank debit card, mobile phone or even turn your computer on ever again. Whilst it’s not always easy to totally understand the intricate technical details of what Snowden reveals, it is, however, impossible not to avoid his very serious warning that Big Brother is most certainly spying on every single one of us.
What’s remarkable about this extraordinary movie is that is that Poitras was part of the whole process of Snowden going public with his astonishing information, so what we see is a blow by blow account as she films this unprecedented event from the very beginning. Oscar-nominated Poitras (‘My Country My Country’) was in the middle of making another film about surveillance when Snowden contacted her anonymously, using the pseudonym ‘Citizenfour’, and asked for her help in exposing the government’s practice of indiscriminately wholesale spying on all its citizens. Unlike others with conspiracy theories Snowden, a computer intelligence expert who worked for one of the NSA’s main contractors, had hard proof to back up all his claims but as this was classified information he knew that revealing the details would be both difficult and dangerous.
In May 2013 he flew from Hawaii from Hong Kong where he had arranged to meet up with Poitras and Washington Post journalist Glenn Greenwald. They had deliberately chosen this Chinese territory as it has no extradition treaty with the US and both Poitras and Snowden knew that the moment they started to go public with the story the US Government (and maybe the British one too) would want to skin them alive.
When the three meet Snowden makes it clear about his intentions to reveal how widespread these surveillance programs are, but he is unsure about exactly what information he should make public without compromising national security. Here the journalists take the lead, and they with British journalist Ewan MacAskill, make the decisions on what to release to the media and when. These few days in with the ‘team’ in Hong Kong holed up in Snowden’s undisclosed hotel room are tense and nerve racking to witness, and asides from worrying about future consequences, Snowden also wants to ensure that when the story breaks that it focuses on the revelations themselves and not about him personally.
It turns out he was right to be concerned as when the world starts to reel with the news of the far-reaching relentless spying that government agencies have been doing aided and abetted by the likes of the major cellphone and broadband providers, the NSA and the US Government desperately try to move the focal point by accusing Snowden of traitorous acts rather than attempting to explain why all this surveillance is happening. His life is definitely in danger and the UN consulate in Hong Kong help spirit him away to a safer location whilst they can work out his next move.
The one thing that one is sure of after seeing Snowden at close quarters and intently watching and listening to him as he shares the information he is about to reveal and explain exactly why he feels the need to take such actions, is that this very regular-type-joe simply thinks that the world has a right to now. He is devoid of any committed political convictions and he even takes great strides to ensure that his actions do not place even the smallest risk to national security. Whatever doubts one may have had about him previously thanks to the highly personal vitriolic backlash in the media that followed the disclosures, they are totally banished when one realises what a responsible and sincere individual Snowden is. He is, in fact, a true patriot and hero.
Once he was publicly identified as being the Whistleblower, there is a very tense time when he is talking with his long-term girlfriend back home who had no inkling at all of his plans for her own good. Now he worries that the authorities will put pressure on her in retaliation, but one of the high points the movie finishes on is seeing the two of them reunited in their flat in Moscow after the Russians eventually gave him asylum.
Credit is also due to the intrepid Greenwald who became both the moderator and the front-man who articulately dealt with the world’s media throughout the whole process. His ‘reward’ was British Immigration Authorities ‘detaining’ his partner at Heathrow airport for four hours to ‘question’ him. In fact less we should think that this is whole surveillance thing is a problem for just the American public, Snowden makes it very clear that the UK agency GCHQ have far less legal restraints placed upon them and their spying on all British citizens is probably even more intense and widespread.
Although the movie ends with the concern of Snowden’s future (the Russians gave him a one year visa) there is naturally the much more vexing question of what will happen to all this wholesale spying once this current furore dies down. The sad thing is, we know the answer.
P.S. This excellent movie has just won the IDA’s Best Documentary Award and has also been shortlisted for a Nomination for the Academy Award for Best Documentary.