Film review: Citizenfour (2014)

I saw this film yesterday and really enjoyed it. Documentarian Laura Poitras, a key person in the chain of events that led to the revelations of Edward Snowden, was in the odd position of making a documentary in which she could have been one of the featured people. But she is someone who hates the spotlight and she manages to largely write herself out of the film, appearing only in brief glimpses in mirrors or in the text of emails exchanged by her with Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, and providing the voice for the emails she received from Snowden that started the process.

It is a gripping film. It is really a spy story in the style of a John Le Carre novel, with little dramatic action but focusing on the process, the steps taken to conceal messages and movements and to avoid detection, while at the same time giving the big picture of what the US and UK have done in subverting freedom and democracy in their countries by the scope of their widespread surveillance.

Of course, right from the very beginning I have been a supporter of Snowden and what he and his journalist allies have done in the cause of shining a light on government abuses and increasing transparency so I am naturally sympathetic to a film that is unabashedly on their side. But the film critic aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes gives it an extraordinarily high 97% rating from a total of 94 critics, suggesting that the zeitgeist is moving in favor of Snowden. It will be interesting to see if the film gets an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary.

The film’s revelations at the end about the emergence of a new source within the government make for fascinating viewing. We are not told who the person is or what is being revealed. We learn about it when Greenwald tells Snowden but he gives him the details by writing on a sheet of paper and passing it to him so that all we see are Snowden’s facial reactions to the news, not the news itself. It is clear that he is impressed with what he is being told and expresses concern for the safety of the source and his or her ability to keep a secret identity. Greenwald assures Snowden that proper steps are being taken and the fact that the government has not yet captured that person suggests that they have had some success so far.

At the end of that scene, we see all the papers being torn up into small pieces, a symbol of what an earlier whistleblower and cryptographer William Binney tells investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill that in this day and age, old-fashioned personal meetings like with Deep Throat during Watergate and using paper and pen is more secure that using electronic communications.

Since I have been following the story very closely from its inception and also read Greenwald’s insider account in his book No Place to Hide (that I reviewed here) and was aware of most of the twists and turns it took, the film was not as highly suspenseful for me as it seems to have been for many critics. I saw it as a character study of Snowden himself.

You may recall that when this story first broke on June 5, 2013, worshippers of the authoritarian national security state in the government and the media made every effort to vilify Snowden personally, using words like arrogant, conceited, grating, grandiose narcissistic, clown, and so on. This was nowhere close to my own impression of him.

Those harsh critics have become silent as time went by and this film should decidedly nail that coffin. The unshakeable image that emerges from the cinema verite elements of the film is that of an earnest, sincere, thoughtful, smart, well-spoken young man, genuinely concerned about what was going on and willing to take whatever risks were necessary to try and change things for the better and anxious not to make the story about him. By contrast, the powerful people lined up against him, such as president Obama, James Clapper, and Keith Alexander, are exposed as unctuous liars.

There is one aspect about Snowden’s personality that struck me forcibly and that is that he seems to be remarkably self-contained. While not a recluse nor dour (the film shows that he can be charming and amusing and even playful), he is clearly someone who has a wealth of inner resources that he can draw upon when needed and I think that this is what made him willing to risk giving up all contacts with the very few people he was close to, his parents and his long-time girl friend Lindsay Mills, and even contemplate the possibility that he could end up in solitary confinement if ever the vicious and vindictive Obama administration got its hands on him. When Barbra Streisand sang that, “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world”, she was simply wrong. It is good to enjoy the company of people but to actually need their company can be problematic. Maybe I can relate to Snowden because I too am like that, perfectly comfortable with spending a lot of time on my own.

The film has a happy ending of sorts where we get to peek through the kitchen window of an apartment and see Snowden and Mills (who has now joined him in Russia) cooking dinner together. It is a charming little vignette, showing us a cozy scene of domesticity. They seem happy and the fact that this image will likely infuriate the Obamas, Clappers, Alexanders, and other authoritarians who are their lackeys makes it sweeter still.


  1. Suzy Wernet says

    Thank you, Mano. I enjoyed your review! A few of us from the Cleveland Freethinkers Meetup decided to go see it together at short notice after I saw you mentioned this film in your blog. I am glad I saw it and am glad to see that this film was made.

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