Fans of political thrillers, documentaries and horror movies are generally viewed as different demographics. But a new film about to hit the screens – and to generate tons of paranoid buzz – is the perfect Venn diagram of a product designed to please (and rattle) all three of those disparate segments of the moviegoing audience. It’s called Citizenfour, and if you can walk out of it without an overpowering desire to disconnect from all social media, turn off the GPS in your cell phone and start finding ways to avoid using the Internet altogether, you have a strong stomach indeed.
Citizenfour is a white-knuckled, skin-crawling, intimate view of the process by which National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden contacted the filmmaker, Laura Poitras, and an American-born, Brazil-based journalist working for The Guardian named Glenn Greenwald and arranged to meet them in Hong Kong, safe from prying eyes, in May 2013. This is no ordinary historical documentary: Poitras’ camera takes us right there, inside that hotel room, for a couple of weeks during which Snowden turned over reams of insider information and talked in detail about the many ways the US government and its international allies known collectively as the Five Eyes systematically spy on their own citizens. While they were still holed up together, with Snowden’s blessing, Greenwald began to break the story – and the world reeled.
More than a year later, public opinion remains divided as to whether Snowden is a courageous, patriotic whistleblower, a narcissistic publicity hound or a dangerous traitor. Poitras’ straightforward cinema vérité technique lets viewers make up their own minds. But seeing Snowden unvarnished by hype, right in the throes of deciding how radical a break with his family, homeland and career he is willing to endure in order to make terrifying truths known, and explaining exactly why he is doing so, creates a powerful impression of a plainspoken man with no hidden agenda. This is no jet-setting Julian Assange character, laden with lurid baggage about his possibly illegal sexual exploits, but a brilliant, geeky, earnest, unassuming 30-year-old who learned too much in his work as an information systems administrator with the highest level of security clearances to sit comfortably in his own skin anymore without letting people know what was being done to them. In real time, we see him pointing out to the journalists which files’ contents ought never to be published because they might endanger CIA agents or their contacts. This man, it’s clear, is no enemy agent bent on doing the US harm.
Poitras sets the footage of Snowden’s clandestine meetings with herself, Greenwald and his British Guardian colleague Ewen MacAskill within a broader timeline, beginning with screenshots of attempts by “Citizenfour,” as Snowden called himself, to establish secure online contact with the journalists and ending with domestic glimpses of his current place of exile in Russia, where his longtime girlfriend has joined him. In between we see interviews with William Binney, an earlier NSA whistleblower whom Poitras profiled in The Program (2012), the short film that first brought her and Greenwald to Snowden’s attention. We witness bloodcurdling courtroom scenes in which attorneys for AT&T blithely rationalize intrusions into their customers’ personal data and congressional hearings in which high-ranking government security officials tell what we now know to be baldfaced lies about their domestic surveillance practices. And we watch a drillpress make Swiss cheese of MacAskill’s hard drive as the Guardian knuckles under pressure from the UK government to destroy the incriminating data that Snowden gave him.
But those meetings in Hong Kong, static in terms of onscreen action and recorded in the crudest of shooting conditions, are the heart of the film. Consequently, Citizenfour isn’t going to win any prizes for cinematography or art direction. The biggest visual excitement is Snowden trying to obscure his face with an umbrella in order to dodge assembled paparazzi as he leaves the hotel, after Greenwald has already begun leaking his revelations in dribs and drabs. But it’s as taut as any espionage thriller ever made, because it’s real, and because the victims of said espionage are you and me and everyone else we know.
Go see Citizenfour prepared to learn a lot about topics that most of us probably prefer to push out of our minds, in terms of the appalling pervasiveness of government surveillance of…basically everyone, regardless of whether or not we’ve ever done anything to arouse suspicion of any sort. Be prepared to accept that the NSA can know, if it so chooses, not only where you went yesterday, what you did and what you bought, but also whom you met. Be prepared to accept that certain agencies have effectively abolished privacy for the nonce.
But, adds Snowden, don’t be prepared to accept that it has to be that way indefinitely. He may never be able to come home, since the law under which he has been charged, the Espionage Act of 1917, draws no distinction between a whistleblower who wants to expose illegal government activities and a spy who wants to sell government secrets to another country with whom the US is at war. He has no legal leg to stand on. But other whistleblowers have begun coming forward in the past year, inspired by his example, and government officials are scrambling for spin control. The cat is out of the bag. Snowden thinks that it’s worth the sacrifice.
Citizenfour will screen at Upstate Films in Woodstock from November 14 through 20. The matinée screening at 2 p.m. this Saturday, November 15, will be followed by a discussion with Michael Ratner, former professor Law at Columbia and Yale and president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Besides having a mile-long résumé of involvement in human rights and civil liberties cases, nationally and internationally, he’s also the attorney in the US for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. So you can bet that his perspective on the Snowden case will be an eye-opener.
If you value your freedoms, you won’t want to miss this one, though you may not sleep quite so soundly afterwards, knowing that Big Brother is not only looking over your shoulder, but has moved in with you. In the wise words of Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (a character haunted, ironically, by the preventable death of an airman named Snowden), “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
Citizenfour screening/discussion with Michael Ratner, Saturday, November 15, 2 p.m., $10/$8/$6, Upstate Films, 132 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-6608, https://upstatefilms.org.