"This is the first essential film about the post-Snowden era, made by one of the key figures who helped usher that era into being."

The first major documentary about US National Security Agency whistleblower and internet privacy champion Edward Snowden is upon us, and there are few who could claim with greater legitimacy to direct it than Laura Poitras, who was one of the first journalists to be contacted secretly by Snowden last year when he was seeking an outlet to help publish his data haul. Poitras has used her footage, which she began shooting upon meeting Snowden in Hong Kong, to craft an illuminating, compelling and undeniably relevant piece of work in Citizenfour.

Through a mix of recorded footage and animated sections that mimic encrypted online conversations between various parties (which also serves as a worrying reminder of what securing privacy involves now in the 21st century) Poitras lays out chronologically how she, and collaborator Glenn Greenwald, ended up taking their laptops and digital cameras to Hong Kong in June 2013 to meet a man who had told them, via online encrypted chat, he would be recognisable because he would be playing with a Rubik’s cube in the mall of the Mira Hotel. It sounds like something out of a John le Carré novel, but in fact the man they met was anything like a flamboyant spy. He was, of course, the now universally-recognised former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden, but at that time Poitras and Greenwald didn't know what to expect.

As Poitras’s film shows in the opening minutes, Snowden had actually tried to get in touch with Greenwald first, but this attempt had not been secure enough. In January 2013, Poitras was already making of a film about abuses of national security in post-9/11 America when she started receiving encrypted emails from someone identifying himself as “citizenfour” and who claimed he could grant her access to data and documents that would prove that the NSA was violating the digital privacy of millions of Americans, and citizens around the globe, to a staggering degree through sophisticated data mining and cracking/hacking techniques, with the storage capability to match.

Within minutes of getting into Snowden’s hotel room in Hong Kong, which was his first point of rest after leaving the US, Poitras had turned on her camera. Much of what Snowden has said about his situation, his motives and his knowledge, has tended to be filtered through news soundbites and the writings of other journalists. But here, Poitras can offer us a more focused look at the man himself, in an intimate setting at a time before the storm had really erupted. This truly was exclusive access, and this section of the film is undeniably the most compelling in large part because few have likely ever seen this footage. Poitras and Greenwald, and later The Guardian’s Ewan MacAskill, had Snowden pretty much to themselves for several days.

On camera, Snowden comes across as lucid, fiercely intelligent, and highly articulate. For a man who was so immersed for so long in data mining and related software, he is also refreshingly able to relate in layman’s terms to his small crowd of onlookers all the intricacies and implications of all the data files and programs that he took from the NSA and which he displays on his laptops. He is also consistent in his arguments and gives every impression that this was a long-planned, carefully considered decision.

Though he on several occasions states that he doesn’t want to become the story, Snowden is undeniably where the gravity of this film draws the viewer. It is impossible not to start considering him as a human being and as vulnerable, as opposed to simply a conduit of data, as he shuffles about his hotel room mostly decked out in tracksuit pants and hoodies. Snowden appears as rake-thin and soft-spoken, hardly a juggernaut of destruction imperilling the security apparatus of a nation. Seemingly cheerful on the surface, a man who states early on that he has made peace with his decision, it makes it all the more noticeable when we see him freak out; such as when an unannounced fire alarm test occurs on the third day of Poitras’ filming sessions.

Snowden also drops a few comments on camera, in perhaps a tellingly too-casual fashion, of what leaving the US and his post in the way that he did actually meant in personal terms. Poitras and Greenwald learn that Snowden told no one, not even his family or his long-term partner, what his intentions were. His partner was on vacation at the time he boarded his flight to Hong Kong, the only clue he was anywhere else was an “I’m working abroad for a few days” note that he left in the kitchen. Later, Poitras captures Snowden on camera as, the mask perhaps slipping slightly, he runs an online chat with his partner as she worriedly relates the situation outside their shared house to him, with what appears to be NSA police attempting to break in.

This film also serves as a testament to the digital tools of the trade today, not only for the NSA, but for journalists and filmmakers pushing back against its reach. Snowden and the journalists around him are never without their smartphones, laptops, hard drives and ethernet cables. Much of Snowden’s attention is understandably taken up by his own laptop, his last connection to the world he left behind as well as his weapon. The background sound of key strokes is near-constant. Snowden spends a good deal of time on screen discussing the need for Greenwald and others to encrypt their work properly, leading to one moment of surreal comedy when Snowden drops a towel over his head and his laptop so no one can see the encryption key he is loading when prepping a memory card. The iconography of encrypted data is used throughout the bridging sequences in the film too, a reminder of where protection against the government is going to have to start and how encryption tools that agencies like the NSA take for granted can be re-appropriated and used against them.

Poitras' film shifts to beyond the time the group spent in Hong Kong, showing the fallout from the publication, via Greenwald and The Guardian, of the initial stories that served up elements of Snowden’s revelations and which led up to the approved publication of his identity. With Snowden underground and in search of a new safe haven in the weeks following the news furore, Poitras turns from him in the last section of the film to, among other things, debates in the German parliament about what to do about NSA revelations about electronic eavesdropping on their own Chancellor, and to Glenn Greenwald lecturing on his work with Snowden in his home of Brazil. This is perhaps the film’s least gripping section, partly because Snowden is absent, and because this is the part of the story informed viewers will already know.

But in the final minutes of the film come one last, truly eye-opening revelation. We see Greenwald, reunited with Snowden (presumably in Russia, which offered him safe haven) dropping the bombshell that another potential whistleblower has made contact. The look on Snowden’s face when he reads, from Greenwald’s scribbled and tantalisingly unclear notes, what material this new source claims he or she can reveal, suggests that this could be on a scale even he never imagined. It is tempting to think that Snowden’s reaction betrays not just surprise, but maybe also a sense of quiet vindication that, as he had mentioned earlier on camera, he has helped birth some kind of digital hydra.

This is the first essential film about the post-Snowden era, made by one of the key figures who helped usher that era into being. Citizenfour is frightening but unmissable viewing, a film that manages to convey in a tangible sense an intangible form of invasion and the risks inherent in it. A fine way for Poitras to complete her trilogy about what happened to the United States after the towers came down on 9/11.

Reviewed on: 15 Oct 2014
Share this with others on...
Citizenfour packshot
Documentary about Edward Snowden.
Amazon link

Director: Laura Poitras

Year: 2014

Runtime: 112 minutes

Search database:

If you like this, try: