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Theatrical Review

Radius-TWC; 114 minutes

Director: Laura Poitras

Written by on October 21, 2014 

The invention of the Internet and other communication technologies has undeniably made the world a more connected place. With unprecedented access to cell phones and various social networks in this post-9/11 era, it’s also easier than ever for the government to track one’s every move. As the debate rages on about surveillance and if desecrating one’s right to privacy can help national security, Edward Snowden, working as an NSA contractor, made the decision to bring more evidence to the table. Considering the notion that anyone with at least a fledgling interest in current events would be familiar with the leaks and near-immediate disclosure of his identity, the new documentary Citizenfour makes for a relentlessly gripping, humanistic behind-the-scenes portrayal of the events.

Laura Poitras, rounding out her trilogy of documentaries examining a post-9/11 world that include My Country, My Country and The Oath, directs what began as a general look at the government’s expanding methods of privacy intrusion, but quickly morphed into something altogether different when she began receiving messages from the anonymous, titular source. While the opening scene details these early exchanges, Poitras then launches into the ideal set-up, detailing the numerous times members of the NSA have made false claims of their lack of involvement in tracking citizens’ data. Juxtaposed with what we now know, this sequence wouldn’t feel out of place in an episode of The Daily Show; it’s what immediately follows that makes Citizenfour an essential document.


Following through with their plans to meet, we’re intimately taken inside the Hong Kong hotel room in which Poitras, Snowden, and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill would convene for the next eight days. Poitras, shooting in a vérité style, makes her presence known, but Snowden is clearly the focus here — something he vehemently didn’t want when it came to the initial dissemination of his leaked documents. A lesser documentary might have exhibited Snowden and his background as an upfront introduction, but Citizenfour expertly keeps its audience in step with Greenwald and company, witnessing the events firsthand, both learning about the subject’s background as well as what the leaks contain.

Despite how one feels about Snowden and his actions, Poitras’ documentary remains mostly a balanced one, even if it could’ve incorporated some of the proposed negative effects the leak yielded. Rather than portraying Snowden as a fearless figure, as the widely seen account of his initial unveiling might have done, the director captures delicate moments in which he comes to terms with the effects of his actions to those closest to him. In an especially significant scene, we learn that, to protect the information he so desperately wants the public to know, he couldn’t tell his partner of a decade his situation — and certainly not his family, either.


Consequential to the release of these documents are the journalists that will present them to the public. As per Snowden’s intention, he’s available to pore through what will be released, but doesn’t want his bias to color any reporting. When he relies on The Guardian’s Greenwald and MacAskill to conclude what they find relevant, the documentary is thus as much a testament to the indispensability of journalism as it is to what Snowden uncovered. One exemplary arc shows the growing perceptiveness of Greenwald: early into the ordeal, his laptop has a weak password, and he eventually, fully submits to Snowden’s vigorous information-protecting protocols.

Considering the events witnessed provide their own chilling effect, music is not often required, but the score from Nine Inch NailsTrent Reznor perhaps steps too far into sensationalized territory. Yet that’s a minor complaint when it comes to one of the most alarmingly compelling documentaries of the year. The damaging effects of the government covertly wrangling more control are in their infancy, but Citizenfour makes for a monumental, unprecedented look inside what can be done to reclaim privacy. For ending with the sort of cliffhanger a studio pining for franchise gold could only dream of, perhaps the most frightening aspect of the documentary is a suggestion that this is only the dawn of what’s to come.

Citizenfour hits limited theaters on Friday, October 24.


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