Such a late entry in the New York Film Festival that it is not included n the original nineteen-page color booklet, Citizenfour is still in edit with “Running time: TBD” and is a detailing of how things transpired rather than any revelation of unsettling facts that were already public knowledge, anyway.
The person or persons identifying himself or themselves as “citizen four” did not want to become the story at the expense of what was to be disclosed. Powers That Be circumnavigated that wish, diverted attention from the message, and have made a scapegoat-traitor of the messenger.
Well into a project concerning post-World Trade Center homeland security paranoia and galloping surveillance, director/co-producer/HDCAM camerawoman Laura Poitras received a number of Pretty Good Privacy-coded electronic mails dangling possible access to secret U.S. government metadata archives, including invasion of every aspect of individual privacy.
The most recent whistleblower incarnation of a Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony J. Russo, a Diane Roark, Kathryn Bolkovac, Jeffrey Wigand or Julian Assange, the pseudonymous sender was Edward J. Snowden, twenty-nine, a now-familiar-name government systems administrator in Hawaii. As he puts it, “the promises of the Obama campaign were betrayed, and [Constitutional] intellectual freedom was being curtailed.” Not seeking martyrdom but willing to suffer if no other course opened, for a “hydra effect” would bring in others for each protester cut down, he had also contacted The Guardian correspondent Glenn Greenwald but failed to establish an unhackable communication with him.
A series of back-and-forths results in the suggestion that Poitras contact Greenwald directly, with her subsequently convincing Snowden to meet the two of them in Hong Kong, to which he relocated for security and safety. Filmmaker and newsman are accompanied to the former Crown Colony by the paper’s Washington-based defense and intelligence expert Ewen MacAskill.
One may be forgiven for suspecting at least some orchestration in the body of the film and questioning the many unnecessary facial close-ups. Much of it is in essence a succession of the resultant encounters “unfolding minute by minute before our eyes.” At the end there is a mood-setting long shot framed through a window: hassled by the FBI in Hawaii, girlfriend Lindsay Mills has joined him in Moscow, where they are shown cooking dinner and hoping for political refugee status.
Printed titles proclaim place, exact site, day of the week and date, while archival TV news with crawlers keeps film viewers abreast of outside events and opinion and debate. The boyish patriot or traitor comes across as engaging and disinterested in recounting what and why, explaining how it all works, and mapping out strategy with the journalists and lawyers.
But documents do not make a documentary. This worthy indictment of the arrogance of power is not finally visual and would have been as good, arguably better, were it a radio broadcast. Fingers on keyboards, monitors, real-time chatting and facial beard follicles do not make for scintillating viewing. Some contend that this technological overload is appropriate, since it is the way in which the story actually unfolded and modern people communicate. Maybe so, but this take still does not make Citizenfour a good view.
It must be admitted that this is fitting, however, in that it contrasts nicely with the participants’ or conspirators’ need for secure messaging as they time the release of information and safeguard themselves and in the end refreshingly go back years to instantaneous, non-hackable, –buggable or –retrievable hand-writing on slips of plain old paper hand-passed from one person to another and hand-shredded after reading. Retro-communication has its advantages.
In light of continuing government threats echoed in F.B.I. Director Comey’s “the post-Snowden pendulum has gone too far,” certainly this film is timely. Nevertheless, critical thumbs up is a knee-jerk response to the content that unfortunately does not take into account the non-cinematic container or form.
(Released by Radius and Participant Media; not rated by MPAA.)