So much of the “debate” about Edward Snowden (He’s an old-school American patriot! No, he’s a Putinist apparatchik!) is unstomachable on the best of days, I was honestly hoping Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour would expand on the cold, hard findings of the young NSA whistleblower-in-exile. Instead, the film is something less square, largely content to serve as a corresponding visual document of the epic scoop shared by Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald in June 2013; exposure to Snowden takes precedence over the insane surveillance systems he delineated for public unpacking. The majority of Citizenfour is drawn from the nerve-wracking hours the team spent meeting and interviewing him for the first time in Hong Kong, discussing data collection and his own background in tremulous proportion, cushioned against Poitras’ rushed-but-essential explainers on how (9/11) and why (absolute power corrupts absolutely, duh) the agency grew too big for its britches. The thrill is in seeing and hearing the disclosure firsthand—putting a name to the story.
Poitras’ film will hit hardest the viewers who know Snowden’s significance, but who’ve been too busy to follow the material Greenwald (among others) has been putting out for a year and a half, because most of the information here is no longer new. But it bears repeating. The unfathomable hypocrisy of the lawmakers who sat idly by while the “intelligence community” expanded spying operations with the collusion of all America’s major telecoms isn’t glossed-over, nor are the lying testimonies of James Clapper or NSA Director General Keith Alexander. Snowden explains that American intelligence agencies extort other countries’ data-collecting structures by trading software and programming for information, and alleges that the United Kingdom’s GHCQ is even more brazen in spying on its corresponding civilians than the NSA is. He shakily describes the experience of watching a live drone feed on his work computer, and you know immediately it’s either a perk of the job or a widespread recreational hack among the staff at Booz Allen Hamilton.
The film seems aware it could go on forever and still carry secrets. Poitras’ relationship with her then-mystery source is teased in introductory encrypted emails (read in by her in crisp, echo-free, ominous voiceover) building up to their encounter, giving moderate shape to the revelations Snowden had been heretofore preparing himself to deliver. The lure of his information becomes an animating force: the film bracketed with slow-motion footage taken while driving in a long, dark tunnel. Visually, its aesthetic is as candid and low-key as the White House’s is opaque: refreshingly honest about its inherent formal limitations. (The world’s most widely-circulated image of Snowden has been, until Citizenfour, a frame from one of Poitras’ DSLR-shot interviews.) Recording in real-time, the entire frame is straining to follow specific speakers in a conversation, the opposite of the approach deployed in the gaudy and condescending activist-docs released nationwide around Oscar Season. It takes itself seriously as an authentic, one-in-a-million document.
At one point, the talks are interrupted by a loud ringing noise that turns out to be a fire alarm: Poitras, Snowden and Greenwald all tense up, ostensibly thinking this might be the end. While Poitras’ is not a cinema of scare tactics, there is no reason to pretend Snowden hasn’t put himself at a huge personal risk—it’s why the footage of him feels like sand in the hourglass. The film closes with a series of psuedo-scoops revealed on slips of paper, scribbled out by Greenwald and passed to Snowden. After Snowden scans the last, agog, he lifts his head and smiles both at Greenwald and into Poitras’ cameras: “Dude, that’s fucking ridiculous.” It’s a mind-boggling tease, but also lands like the coda of any summer blockbuster: Citizen5? Poitras’ film is both indispensable, and ultimately a (wholly justified) paean to the muckraking ethos of the press as privileged gatekeepers. Which, in 2014, is not precisely the same thing as freedom of information.