Edward Snowden is quite a polarizing figure–some view him as a hero for revealing the extent of the state’s surveillance on private citizens, while others see him as a traitor for exposing state secrets–and I suppose there are a great many who remain undecided.
Citizenfour, winner of the 2015 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, opens with a scene that wouldn’t be amiss in some kind of cyber/sci-fi flick–anonymous, mysterious, and encrypted messages being sent to journalist/filmmaker Laura Poitras’ laptop, promising major information on government spying and emphasizing the danger that they will both be in if she chooses to pursue the story.
After a series of conversations, Laura, journalist Glenn Greenwald, and the Guardian’s intelligence reporter Ewen MacAskill descend on Hong Kong, where Laura follows the pre-arranged protocol for Edward and herself to meet without arousing suspicion.
What follows is a series of interviews that take place in Snowden’s hotel room, filmed by Laura and conducted mainly by Glenn–covering everything from his motivations for doing what he did, his experience in the world of surveillance, the details of NSA and other government spying programs, and the possible consequences which he is prepared to face.
While on camera, I found some of the moments a bit cheesy (shots of Snowden clad in the hotel bathrobe, tapping thoughtfully away at his laptop), overall I found the documentary to be a thoughtful, chilling look at how nothing we do is private–from travelling on the subway to phone conversations–as well as a glimpse into the mind of a quiet, extremely smart, mild-mannered individual who took the steps that he did.
The footage then shows how the story was broken over major news networks, and the reactions thereof over subsequent days, before Snowden reveals his identity and flees to Russia. Interspersed among the Snowden dialogue throughout the film is footage of the government harassment experienced by Greenwald and Poitras–both before their involvement with Snowden due to other journalistic endeavors–and after. The film also portrays conversations with other people tangentially involved in government surveillance, from the owner of a private email service who chose to shut down rather than bow to the US government’s demands to experts on this kind of government behavior.
Needless to say, everyone left the cinema rather depressed and/or paranoid. It’s an interesting documentary that raises even more interesting questions to which there are no easy answers.