Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 18, 2015)
Few recent public figures seem as controversial as Edward Snowden. Depending on whom you ask, the whistleblower is viewed as a patriot, a traitor, or both.
For a closer look at this polarizing figure, we go to 2014’s Oscar-winning Citizenfour. In the documentary, we trace the emergence of Snowden’s story. Starting in late 2012, an anonymous source reached out to reporter Glenn Greenwald, and then not much later, documentarian Laura Poitras got encrypted e-mails from the same contact.
Poitras and Greenwald travelled to Hong Kong, where they met with Snowden, an employee of a defense contractor who did work with the NSA. Later joined by other journalists, Snowden discusses all the ways that US authorities tap/track the communication among citizens. The film lets Snowden reveal what he knows and also tracks reactions to the public release of this information.
From the minute Citizenfour starts, it becomes clear that Poitras won’t approach the subject from a neutral stance. A text preface tells us about her own negative experiences with the government as well as the film’s place as the third in a post-9/11 trilogy. The obviousness of Poitras’s leanings made me fear that Citizenfour would offer nothing more than a highly biased piece of propaganda ala Merchants of Doubt.
On the positive side, this doesn’t really occur. Granted, virtually all of the material represents one point of view, so you won’t hear much dissension/defense of the NSA’s methods. Nonetheless, Citizenfour doesn’t batter us over the head with its political beliefs, so that comes as a relief.
Unfortunately, Citizenfour fails to become an especially interesting look at the subject matter. It starts fairly well, as we get a good amount of background about governmental overreach and the ways these authorities step into the lives of average citizens. These moments hint at a frightening abuse of civil liberties.
And then we go to Hong Kong and formally meet Snowden. Ironically, he claims that he doesn’t want to be the focal point of the story – he hopes that the information he reveals will stay at the core.
That doesn’t happen in Citizenfour, as it tends to obsess over its lead subject. Would it be hyperbole to state that the movie indulges in hero worship? Maybe, maybe not – the film sure does devote a lot of time to efforts to make Snowden look like a hero and a martyr, and the other side gets virtually no screentime.
Actually, Snowden’s work/information doesn’t show up all the often either, as Citizenfour often just focuses on his situation. When we visit him in his hotel, we see him hanging out, typing on the keyboard and grooming himself. When he speaks to the journalists, they tend to discuss tangential areas and not Snowden’s actual revelations.
Perhaps Poitras feels the viewer will already know all that information, and maybe she’s right. Nonetheless, Citizenfour comes across as ambling and pointless, as it never goes anywhere. Without an attempt to get to the heart of the issues Snowden dug into, we’re left with a vague investigation of his personal situation and attempts to keep him free.
Sorry, but these don’t prove to be especially interesting. Perhaps they should, as Snowden seeks asylum in a variety of spots, but instead, we simply get more self-serving attempts to make Snowden look like a hero.
Which he may be – as I mentioned at the start, opinions of Snowden’s actions vary radically. Whether we see him as a patriot or a pariah doesn’t really matter in the progress of the film.
What does matter – to me, at least – is my feeling that the end product remains awfully boring. Citizenfour wants to let us get to know Snowden and his situation, but instead, we just watch him type on a keyboard and put gel in his hair. What could – and should – have been a fascinating documentary ends up as a long, slow piece of character aggrandizement.