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‘Citizenfour’ — a real-life thriller for the Obama era

(Facebook / Citizenfour)

(Facebook / Citizenfour)

Last summer, whistleblower Edward Snowden blew open one of the biggest news stories of the 21st century. To do so, he furtively contacted filmmaker Laura Poitras to collaborate in releasing the troves of classified files he had access to as a National Security Agency contractor with top-level security clearance. Months later, she flew to Hong Kong to meet with Snowden in the summer of 2013. “Citizenfour”as Snowden was known to Poitras in their lengthy online correspondence — is the story of this encounter and its disturbing context, as well as a damning indictment of America’s criminally swollen surveillance state.

“Citizenfour” is the third in Poitras’s trilogy about post-9/11 America. As she explains in this new film’s first several minutes, she earned a spot on government watch lists after 2006’s “My Country, My Country” — the first in the trilogy — which is about Iraqis living under U.S. occupation. This notoriety, Snowden explained over encrypted chat conversations, is why he elected to contact her, stating, “This is a story that few but you can tell.” He also warned her of the additional risk she stood to take on, saying, “know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial … friend you keep … site you visit and subject line you type is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not.”

In producing “Citizenfour,” Poitras moved preemptively to Berlin to avoid her heightened security profile, and so that her footage wouldn’t be seized by U.S. authorities. Even once in Germany, Poitras’ production team used lengthy passwords and worked off of encrypted computers to complete the film.

The bulk of “Citizenfour” itself oscillates between footage from that first eight-day meeting between Poitras, Snowden, and seasoned investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong, as well as expositions on the scope of the NSA’s security apparatus, and snippets of initial coverage of the leaks themselves in the summer of 2013. In the latter half of the film, Poitras dives only briefly into a discussion of the surrounding media circus and governmental response that included the nine-hour detainment of Greenwald’s partner David Miranda at Heathrow Airport, along with a bipartisan effort to condemn Snowden’s character and patriotism.

The interactions between Greenwald and Snowden are the film’s most captivating, largely because of Poitras’ ability to put viewers in her shoes: watching history unfold in real time. Between her understated narration and producer Steven Soderbergh’s characteristically sparse-yet-sleek editing, “Citizenfour” plays more like a character-driven spy thriller than a traditional documentary. Critics of the film have derided Poitras’ lack of objectivity. They’re right: As an object of government surveillance herself, Poitras holds a personal stake in publicizing Snowden’s leaks. Where they’re wrong, however, is that this perspective adds to her work, rather than detracts from it.

Where Poitras places obvious crosshairs on the NSA and associated government bodies, hers and Greenwald’s secondary target is the American media machine itself. Much of the conversation captured in Snowden’s high-rise Hong Kong hotel room consists of Greenwald, principally, coaching Snowden through how best to maneuver around a toxic news cycle eager to divert attention away from the substance of the leaks to the extraneous details of a whistleblower’s personal life. Contrasted with the film’s intimate portrait of Greenwald and Poitras, each concerned for their own safety and living abroad, clips of Wolf Blitzer’s thunderous, sensationalistic coverage of the leaks rings hollow, even immoral.

The actual information revealed throughout “Citizenfour” won’t be news to those who were following last summer’s coverage: Despite public testimony by top government officials to the contrary, the U.S. government has been collecting complex “metadata” — including financial information, travel records and email traffic — on U.S. citizens without warrant for years. Snowden himself reveals through the film that a good many of the claims the NSA has made, especially with regards to the fragility of its infrastructure, contradict the truth: The NSA is collecting more data now than it has in the agency’s 61-year history.

With remarkable clarity, “Citizenfour” illustrates the chilling reality of the Obama age; there are few straw men or villains, as Bush was for the antiwar movement, but an impersonal bureaucratic regime set up to reinforce itself (and startling new levels of executive power) at every turn. Released on the eve of an election where both houses of Congress stand a good chance of coming under Republican control, bipartisan agreement on increased surveillance is especially unnerving. Most disturbing about Poitras’ film is that a comprehensive story about the government’s security excesses can be told with little reference to the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and only passing mention of the massive security overhaul that followed the attacks on September 11. This isn’t a story about a state of exception so much as the “new normal” of life in the United States, in which 1.2 million Americans are reportedly under regular surveillance.

For younger millennials, who, like myself, hold only faint and rapidly fading memories of life before the Patriot Act, “Citizenfour” is a sobering reminder about the world we’ve inherited. For us, life under surveillance isn’t so much a “new normal” as the only normal we know, much like the nearly 14 years of U.S.-led wars in the Middle East. As Poitras and Snowden’s legal team point out in the film, two of Snowden’s three felony charges have been leveled under the Espionage Act of 1917, which only takes effect in times of war. The act has remained on the table since its passage, meaning that — legally — the United States has been in a continual state of war for nearly 100 years.

In light of this film, individual attempts to safeguard our privacy — using alternative email servers, taking the battery out of our phones, developing code words — seem almost laughably out of touch with the ubiquity of government surveillance and the scale at which it continues to grow. While basic security precautions become all the more necessary, especially for those engaged with social justice work, neither Poitras, Greenwald or Snowden are suggesting we go “off the grid” and disengage from technology altogether. As of now, surveillance is unavoidable, and will only continue to expand unless challenged.

If there is hope in “Citizenfour,” it’s in the power of information. Seeing the extent to which Snowden’s actions shook the government to its core is a hopeful reminder that, omnipresent as it may be, the surveillance state is not immune to dissent. “Citizenfour” is a testament to the power of investigative journalism as a tool of democracy, and to the bravery of whistleblowers. One of the film’s eeriest scenes is of veteran Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill, invited to participate in the first days of the Hong Kong meeting, destroying a database given to him by Snowden with power tools, under pressure from the U.K. government. Sacrifice, for Snowden and whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, is almost total. Manning is serving 35 years, ironically, in a military prison in the Maryland town where Snowden grew up. Should he choose to return to the United States, Snowden could face 30 years. Although “Citizenfour” offers few answers for organizers, the film itself is an act of protest that might just inspire a new and desperately needed wave of filmmakers, whistleblowers and journalists.