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Citizenfour - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: A
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A

It's not often a documentary is effective at building and sustaining suspense, especially considering it's a true story -- all this information is already out there. But there is something inherently frightening about Citizenfour, an excellent film by director Laura Poitras that focuses almost exclusively on the roughly one week during which Edward Snowden released a ton of classified information to the press about U.S. government surveillance.

This was a guy who worked for a contractor with the National Security Agency, but by his own words on film, reporting to superiors employed by the NSA, and also in a position granted full security clearance -- granting him access to multitudes of classified information that had nothing to do with his job.

A lot of things are said in Citizenfour that make a deep impression, perhaps chief among them when Snowden says to reporter Gleen Greenwald -- the most key supporting player in this story -- "This is not science fiction. This is happening right now."

Before being faced with the concrete information presented here (and in the news when these stories first broke in mid-2013), it was easy blithely to think in the abstract about how naïve it is to think you can do anything online anonymously. Electronic privacy doesn't exist, you might say, and anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding themselves. Snowden's leaks don't just prove this to be true, however. They underscore the degree to which the power the U.S. government is exerting is actually horrifying.

Greenwald, himself the subject of much media attention given his very exclusive access to Snowden (along with The Guardian correspondent Ewen MacAskill), makes arguments simple enough for layman understanding: the NSA surveillance represents what could become "probably the most effective means of human control and oppression ever known," with shocking ease. The U.S. government, through online search query and phone records, not only can, but is tracking the every move of every citizen living on the grid. Their argument is that this is not being done actively, but the fact remains that they have all the data in their possession, and based on whatever red flags they set, they can extract whatever they need from their archives. And who can feel free when they know not a single conversation they have can be done in private?

This is some Orwellian stuff, the implications of which cannot be underestimated. And we have Edward Snowden to thank for public knowledge of it. Not even the brief clip shown of President Obama defending the government's treatment of Snowden as a serious criminal has any counter impact. Obama agrees that the debate on privacy vs. "national security" is a vital one to have, but says this was the wrong way to go about it. There may be some truth to that. But who believes the debate would have been happening at all if not for Edward Snowden?

With the full knowledge that his identity will be revealed in due time, Snowden allows for a stunning amount of videotaped footage of himself and reporters Greenwald and MacAskill in his Hong Kong hotel room, where he's holed up as the stories begin to break. This is where the vast majority of the footage of Snowden in Citizenfour takes place, and it is fascinating on multiple levels -- seeing what he is sacrificing by causing this political shit storm, and how his personality comes through in all of it, even though he very carefully orchestrates the leaks so that the classified information itself becomes the story before he as an individual becomes the story.

There's no question that Poitras, whose presence is only barely noticed here (she does a lot of voice-over reading email communications, and only once or twice is heard speaking behind the camera), presents this story with clear bias. Snowden himself still comes across as impressively objective, as a man with a conscience. He makes you wonder what you might have done in his position. If you feel a terrible injustice is being done, will you act? To this degree? This man had to cut all family ties, with the one exception of his girlfriend, who eventually moved to Moscow to be with him, where he has been granted temporary asylum. (It is interesting to note here how lucky Snowden is to be straight, as it seems doubtful Moscow would have granted asylum if he were openly gay -- which, incidentally, Glenn Greenwald is, which this film subtly reveals. But it makes no comment on the likelihood that Russia would not grant Greenwald the same protections for that reason.)

Before Snowden is whisked off to Russia, though, most of the film tracks the time he spends in that Hong Kong hotel, and Poitras effectively mounts the tension. In terms of both narrative structure and the information presented itself, Citizenfour is a truly riveting film, in a way very few documentaries, particularly ones with no snappy graphics or clever editing are. And even without the cleverness, the editing here is superb: Citizenfour is one hell of a story, and a truly vital and provocative one at that.

Edward Snowden confides in reporter Glenn Greenwald in CITIZENFOUR.

Overall: A-
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