Directed by Laura Poitras
Opens October 24
Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour is a drama of secrets, recognizably linear in the manner of cinéma vérité yet possessing a terrific sense of outward expansion and self-extinguishing tension. Its hour-long centerpiece is an ingeniously compressed series of visits with the world’s most famous NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, in a Hong Kong hotel room over several days in summer 2013, undertaken after his initiative in contacting Poitras himself. As Snowden discloses the formerly classified nature of US government surveillance to Poitras and Glenn Greenwald (and later a Guardian journalist), there’s a commingled shock and angst over the extent of the spying, fear about what might happen to Snowden or his confidants in flouting powerful interests, and the moment-to-moment small absurdities of being in some featureless hotel suite with the wall-mounted TV. Poitras carefully sets up Snowden’s reveal, preceded by text chat conversations, in an opening section; then, in front of us, is the unremarkable-looking yet instantly recognizable techie (who’s also given his own “MOVE!” IT-guy moment with Greenwald’s laptop).
Boxes within boxes within boxes: Poitras’s film is an instant, unpleasant paranoia classic, dramatizing—watch the flowchart implode—the exposure of secrets that our government was keeping about the fact that they were stealing the secrets of others (and turning them into their own secrets… thus rendering them no longer private, and secret?). The intimate setting of a messy hotel room underlines the tech-age’s blurring of private and public that is tritely accepted as part of the modern condition, until it also turns out to be a fact of government practice; in his lightly Carolina-accented voice and earnest expression, Snowden looks young for a whistleblower, looking more and more fatigued as the days go on and he learns of the FBI contacting his girlfriend. The room’s TV reports the aftershocks—watched by Snowden—as conversations turn into revelations and, finally, events.
For Poitras, this is another coup with a trusting subject, following the bin Laden associate of The Oath and the Iraqi doctor putting his neck out in My Country, My Country. Yet it’s also one that sympathizes with its subject, rather than adopting a position of curious understanding as with The Oath’s queasy moral portrait; Obama is excerpted proclaiming Snowden as “not a patriot,” but the tone sides with Snowden’s self-conception as a defender of the right to “meaningfullly oppose” power. The hotel room sequence is bookended by vital stage-setting and background information courtesy of re-purposed lectures, through which Poitras is able to pay close attention to rhetoric: one activist quoted draws a fascinating equivalence between formulating rights in terms of “privacy” versus “liberty.”
“It’s not science fiction,” Snowden observes (in a year when Poitras’s strategy of showing bare text chat sessions with pregnant pauses is something that can still crop up in the likes of Transcendence). But even for viewers who may already know from news reports what exactly Snowden made knowable, Citizenfour still unfolds like a surprise, leaving one in a state of uncomfortable suspension.