Director: Laura Poitras
MPAA Rating: (for language)
Running Time: 1:54
Release Date: 10/24/14 (limited); 10/31/14 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 30, 2014
On the morning his interview with columnist Glenn Greenwald goes public, Edward Snowden, having just announced to the world that he was the one who took files from the National Security Agency that document how the agency has the ability to and does keep tabs on American citizens' phone calls, is fussy about how his hair looks. He wets it down, brushes it back, looks in the mirror, and scoffs. He puts in some gel, dries his hair, and picks at the part with his fingers. The point, it seems, is that he is calm in the wake of revealing his identity, putting himself into the public eye and, as he says, painting a target on his own back.
There's also a sense of Snowden trying to look his best after getting what he wanted. He wanted the documents out there, and he wanted his name attached to the leak. He wanted the target on his back. We know this because, in one way or another, he says so multiple times throughout Citizenfour. It's safe to assume that he's sincere, but one's opinion of what he did is certainly going to color one's perception of his motives.
What I think of Snowden and his actions is irrelevant, and yes, that's a way for me to cop out of stating an opinion about the man and what he did. Honestly, I'm indecisive. Is it important that we know that United States government is keeping track of citizens' phone calls and Internet activity and that it is doing so without due process? Of course, it is, but Snowden's revelations were much more complex than that. There are other infuriating details here that Snowden, Greenwald, and director Laura Poitras gloss over in their eagerness to get to what they want to say.
Snowden has a story he wants to tell, and there's a reason he chose Poitras and Greenwald as the people to whom he tells it. Both are sympathetic to the man and in lockstep with the story. There's a moment in which Snowden says that he didn't want to leak the information directly (a la Julian Assange, who appears briefly here, and his WikiLeaks project), lest the focus be on him and people believe that his bias is at play. Of course, he's telling that to two people who clearly have their own biases to confirm.
There's a distance from reality in that moment, and the movie pretty much lives in that gap between reality and what Poitras and her subjects see as reality. That's bias in a nutshell, and maybe the movie's bias would be less of an issue if its storytelling were far more focused and a little less uncritical of its main subject.
Part of the problem is that Snowden doesn't want to become the story, but Poitras makes him the movie's story. The movie is set primarily in the Hong Kong hotel room, where Snowden discusses his work with the NSA and what he uncovered while working there as a contractor from a private consulting firm. One thing the movie never addresses, which seems a major sticking point, is Snowden's admission that he, as a private consultant, had more and better access to the NSA's data-gathering systems than anyone in the agency. Snowden is a whistleblower, but what if someone with less noble intentions gained such access?
There are lengthy conversations about the issues of data-collection (without ever finding a reason for anger about the fact that the government received most of its data from private companies), and they're littered with the kind of tech-heavy, shorthanded language of people who really know the topics at hand. Poitras never really provides context to the specifics. There's a scene in which we see some charts of a certain NSA program, and those charts simply appear on screen without any explanation for what they say.
It might be evidence that Poitras is too close to the topic (maybe with good reason: a couple of intermittent text breaks explain how she needed to leave a country because she was being followed), but the result is that a large, vital chunk of the movie is a miasma of unclear language. The movie is neither a starter course for newcomers nor a refresher course for those initiated in the basics. It's not an inviting approach.
That leaves us searching for something comprehensible upon which to grasp, and for long stretches, the only thing on screen is Snowden. He presents himself as a cipher, while Poitras presents him as a figure to be admired. Neither works because of the other: We don't buy the impassive enigma because the movie observes him with such esteem, and we don't buy the admiration because Snowden keeps distancing others from having such an opinion of him.
This isn't a one-sided movie as much as it is a movie about half of one side. The people in Citizenfour repeatedly say that the government's data-collection activity is a debate that should be had, but this is apparently not the forum for it. The movie desperately wants to create outrage over the issue but instead clouds the debate with incomprehensible details and hero-worship.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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