****1/2 (out of five)
Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour is vital, urgent, and breathtaking, not necessarily because of any razzle-dazzle in the filmmaking, nor in any spectacular conceit, nor due to any incredibly detailed argument. It is brilliant because it captures an intimate moment of history that will reverberate through the ages; a moment that would not have been captured had not a connection been made.
That connection was between Edward Snowden, Poitras, and journalist Glenn Greenwald. When Snowden decided to become a whistleblower he made a very canny decision: not just to contact his favourite journo but also his favourite documentary filmmaker. Thus, we have the whistle, blown, but we also have this incredible document of the whistle being blown, as it is being blown.
This is history in front of your eyes, from the most intimate perspective: about eight days of Snowden in a hotel room in Hong Kong, giving his acquired documents to Greenwald and Guardian journo Ewen MacAskill, then splitting for Russia. Not a re-creation, not a construction: Poitras’s camera in the hotel room as everything goes down. You see Snowden on email with his long-time girlfriend as she realises he’s never coming home; you see the human rights lawyers arriving to take up Snowden’s case; you see Snowden deciding how to leave the room, and disappear into a future that he has no idea about.
It’s thrilling, unbelievably thrilling. Even though we know Snowden is safe in Moscow (at least for now), the sense of danger (and paranoia, a huge theme of the film) is tangible. There’s a dazzling sequence where Snowden looks out of his Hong King hotel window, and Poitras shows what he’s seeing twice, which is a pretty Hong Kong Square. The first time, we get the sense of Snowden’s self-imposed imprisonment: he’s been in that room for a week (like Julian Assange has been in that Ecuadorean Embassy for some years now), and can’t simply venture out into the pretty Square; the second, we get the sense that the Square could be swarming with people wanting to snatch Snowden away – to who knows where. After all, the crimes he’s accused of are terribly punishable.
Snowden himself comes off as hugely intelligent, hugely ethical, and hugely likeable. I would want to be his friend if he wasn’t exiled in Russia. There is no sense of him seeking self-promotion – what kind of self-promotion leads you to exile? – but only of moral responsibility. Indeed, you just wonder why more people haven’t come forward about the necromancies of the NSA; perhaps it is only fear.
This film is full of incredibly intelligent, brave people, to the point of making one feel a little inadequate. It’s an international spy tale told in (almost) real time, and it’s the truth. Snowden’s leaks really put the US Administration into a scrambling, blubbering mess, and caused international outrage, and so they should have. Alex Gibney’s Wikileaks: We Steal Secrets was a brilliant film about Wikileaks and Julian Assange, but Poitras’s film is like an incredible photograph, capturing a singular moment in history. She was invited to be there by Snowden so, in some ways, it’s not her brilliance on display; the fact that Snowden chose her, however, is evidence of her brilliance on display. Regardless, it’s the documentary of the year. Amazing.