Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour is not a documentary about Edward Snowden. It is a gripping film about strategy, surveillance, and high-stakes whistleblowing. The film documents Ms. Poitras and fellow journalist Glenn Greenwald’s meeting with “Citizenfour” – the handle Snowden used in his first anonymous emails to her – over an eight-day period in Hong Kong to plot how to expose his proof that the US government had been extensively surveilling its citizens.
Ms. Poitras opens her documentary by reading the first email Snowden sent her, in which he writes, in part, “for now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, site you visit and subject line you type is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited, but whose safeguards are not.” The film then goes on to show the intense deliberations in a Hong Kong hotel room about how to handle and expose this sensitive information to the world.
The film portrays Snowden as sincere, reserved and principled, if not a little worried. After all, he had just bolted from the US with loads of sensitive information that he was about to unleash on the world. And although he was certain that he wanted to unleash it, he was anxious that “personality journalism” would make him the story, rather than his revelations. As history proved, yes his revelations shook the world, but his fears have also materialized. He has been in the spotlight ever since.
Ms. Portrais knew before meeting Snowden that she wanted to document the experience. She is a documentary filmmaker after all and had been working on a film about surveillance. He agreed, in part, because he had already decided to reveal his identity. During filming, Ms. Potrias said she “very much felt that I was witnessing somebody who was basically kind of crossing over into the line of, like, I don’t know. I’ve made choices in my life and I don’t know what the repercussions will be but I accept them.”
The film concludes with some surprising revelations including a note from Mr. Greenwald about drones written on a piece of paper that is swiftly ripped up and a glimpse into Snowden’s present-day life showing that Snowden’s girlfriend joined him in Russia, hopefully making his asylum a little less lonely as he continues to ask the US to let him come home.
Citizenfour premiered this weekend at the New York Film Festival. It opens in limited release on October 24 before expanding nationwide.
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