Thursday, December 4, 2014

Review - Citizenfour

We meet our hero holed up in the Mira Hotel, in Hong Kong. At first glance he seems an unlikely hero; Gaunt, unimposing, wearing a nervous smile that threatens to trivialize what he has to say. Until then, he was only known to documentarian Laura Poitras by his online alias, 'citizenfour'. Within a week his true moniker, Edward Snowden, would become a household name, and the revelations he brought to light in that hotel room in the summer of 2013 continue to reverberate through the public consciousness.

He is the central figure of Poitras' much-talked-about documentary Citizenfour, her first-hand account of Snowden -- then a 29 year old data analyst with the National Security Agency -- exposing the defamed intelligence service for spying on millions of Americans, and then some. His whistleblowing has since caused him to take political asylum in Russia where he remains to this day, knowing well that he would be arrested on sight should he ever again set foot in the United States.
Poitras is no stranger to government scrutiny herself. Her Oscar-nominated 2006 Iraq war film My Country, My Country landed her on the Department of Homeland Security's watch list, so claim the opening captions of Citizenfour. It also landed her on Snowden's radar, motivating him to reach out to her through encrypted emails, in hopes that she might be willing to meet with him in secret, and share his startling information with the world.

At once, this documentary grabs the viewer with its thriller-like premise. "It's like something out of a John le Carré novel," exclaims Glenn Greenwald, an investigative reporter for The Guardian who also attended those hush-hush Hong Kong meetings, and first broke the story in June of 2013.

And yet a John le Carré novel this is not. Poitras cannot possibly sustain the captivating tone of the opening few minutes, for a couple reasons. Firstly, the media frenzy that followed in the wake of Snowden's evidence had such a high profile that many of us already know how the story peters out.

Secondly, before conducting his series of divulging interviews with Poitras and Greenwald, Snowden astutely observes the media's tendancy to let 'personalities' overshadow the real story, insisting that the focus of their discourse stay on the actual news at hand. Of course to us, it's no longer news, not that that makes it any less important.

Poitras could have improved this chapter of the film by making an attempt to break down Snowden's raw testimony and present it to us in more accessible format. A clearer understanding of just how the NSA is able to track individuals through "metadata" would have been beneficial. Instead, the clandestine rendez-vous quickly slows to a series of verbose conversations with impenetrable jargon.

What's naturally more fascinating for us is Snowden himself, who tries his best to remain a willful enigma; Merely the messenger of a far bigger deal. But the film is clearly at its best when the cameras are trained squarely at him, capturing all his human ticks.

For instance, when he ruefully emails his wife -- who had been oblivious to his life-altering plans -- to let her know he won't ever be coming home. Or as he approaches his departure from the hotel; Obsessing over how best to alter his appearance so as not to be spotted by agents of the press (or agents of something else); The dark rings under his eyes revealing just how much the paranoia and uncertainty of his next step is disturbing him.

In the grand scheme of things these moments are relatively few, but they make a lasting impression.

The final third of the film basically watches the fallout of the Snowden leaks -- at least from an international perspective, since Poitras and Greenwald were personae non grata Stateside -- before wrapping up with a foreboding implication about an upcoming scandal.

While its bias is obvious and it doesn't ring with the same immediacy that this story demanded a year ago, Citizenfour still raises pertinent concerns about the state of privacy and freedom in post-9/11 America, and should be mandatory viewing for anyone who is uninformed about this ongoing debate. It's far from the best film of year (it may not even be the best documentary of the year), but it's one of the few films this year that can lay rightful claim to the descriptor "must-see".

*** out of ****

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