A well-designed two-hour documentary may be our single most efficient format for telling a complex story in a manageable amount of time. When assembled by a skillful filmmaker, the images, sounds and textual elements don’t just add up to more than their sum—they become exponential, delivering a kind of fractal storytelling experience.
Such is the case with filmmaker Laura Poitras’ extraordinary documentary Citizenfour, concerning the saga of Edward Snowden and his disclosure of the NSA’s global surveillance programs. Opening today at the Colony Theatre and the Raleigh Grande, it’s one of the must-see movies of 2014.
A great documentary also needs good access to its topic, of course, and Poitras certainly had that in regard to Snowden. She was one of two journalists, along with investigative reporter Glenn Greenwald, initially approached by Snowden when he traveled to Hong Kong with plans to disclose his trove of top secret digital documents.
Poitras, Greenwald and a third journalist from the British newspaper The Guardian met with Snowden, in his hotel room, over the course of several days. Poitras asked Snowden’s permission to film, and kept the digital cameras rolling. The spy movie tropes of this initial meeting—encrypted emails, hotel lobby code phrases—initially seem faintly ridiculous. But then the seriousness of it all sets in.
The tension ratchets up as the scope of Snowden’s disclosures become clear. A thick paranoia descends in the little hotel room. Snowden speaks knowledgeably of the many, many ways they are potentially—and probably—being monitored. He explains how any hotel phone can be remotely switched to a recording device. When he unplugs the phone in the room, the hotel fire alarm mysteriously goes off a few minutes later.
That turns out to be a false alarm, quite literally, but it’s indicative of the film’s storytelling style. Poitras uses all the tools of the filmmaker trade to generate suspense and heighten significance. The sound track drops in ominous deep-bass ambient tones. Snowden, dressed in a white T-shirt or hotel robe, is framed within a white background, giving him an innocent, angelic glow.
The film clearly has, if not an agenda, a definite point of view. It’s on Snowden’s side all the way, and with some compelling reasons. Later scenes reveal Poitras retreated to Berlin when she discovered she was being followed, and Greenwald’s boyfriend was infamously detained by British authorities after the story broke.
In the center of it all is Snowden, who comes off here as intelligent, articulate and realistic. He has thought this thing through, and knows that his world is about to explode. Whether you think Snowden is a hero or a traitor, Citizenfour insists that you see him as a person—emailing with his girlfriend who he may never see again, losing weight rapidly as the stress and anxiety take their toll. You can read a shelf full of books on Edward Snowden, but none will provide the human element captured here.
As events progress and Greenwald begins publishing his bombshell stories in The Guardian, it’s evident that he has thought things through as well. The veteran journalist releases the disclosures incrementally, keeping the story in the news cycle, and strategizing with Snowden on tone: “The fearlessness and the fuck-you approach to the [government] bullying tactics has got to pervade everything we do.”
These passages in Hong Kong make up the core of the film, and focus necessarily wobbles when Snowden departs for political asylum via the U.N. facility in Hong Kong, and, eventually, Russia. Subsequent communiques between Poitras, Greenwald and Snowden are recreated as onscreen text chats. The film shifts to other venues—courtrooms, the Guardian news offices, or undersea cable intercept sites on the U.K. coastline. We get a glimpse of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, whose organization helped get Snowden to Russia.
The story’s jigsaw puzzle pieces are expertly clicked into place so that by the end we’ve been given an invaluable insider perspective on the saga, and a pretty decent primer on the larger issues of technology, privacy and public policy. The film’s final scenes don’t quite land. They suggest a second wave of world-shaking disclosures is forthcoming, but we’re given only a glimpse—literally scraps of paper—concerning what that might be.
If you see Citizenfour with others, I’d suggest blocking out a few hours of time afterward, for discussion. It’s the kind of movie you’ll want to talk about. Two images stick with me: In the first, the camera is behind Snowden, looking out the window in Hong Kong, his life about to detonate. The second is Snowden again, now in Russia, reunited with his girlfriend and cooking something on the stovetop. But this time we see him from a distance, looking in through a window, as if through a spyglass.