A Review of Citizen Four, Directed by Laura Poitras
4 ½ stars (out of 5)
Some people have been unconditionally supportive of Edward Snowden and his supposed but technical “crime” of exposing massive government surveillance beyond what anyone could imagine possible. Other (mostly white and older) Americans have felt the exact opposite.
Citizen Four doesn’t see itself on a mission to change minds, perhaps other than for apathetic people who know very little or nothing about what Edward Snowden exposed, and who based their opinions on quick superficial sound bites from corporate media.
Citizen Four is the third film from Poitras in a series examining America after the 9/11 attacks and over a decade “War on terror”. The power of the film is in its very straightforward presentation of the subject without polemics. There is no real delving into whether or not Snowden’s revelations make him a “hero” or “traitor”. That is the job of a shallow corporate media, and not for a real intellectual debate.
Snowden saw himself as neither. He risked a lucrative job that paid him more than enough money for a relatively wealthy lifestyle for the rest of his life. He risked his entire life, his identity, and his future—not for the fame. Edward Snowden never did a single thing he did for himself, but because he genuinely believed in what he was doing, which was to bring extreme government power even George Orwell could never conjure up into a public debate.
The truth is, Snowden reveals that the government can literally track anyone’s cell phone correspondence anywhere. The NSA has the power to track anyone’s emails, Facebook communications, and what they do on a daily basis. Which web sites they visit. Who there family and friends are.
Virtually, no privacy exists at all. President Obama has tried to have it both ways, claiming that he didn’t know the extent of some of Snowden’s revelations while at the same time insisting that his actions broke the law, and that a debate was happening anyways on the extent of the NSA’s abuses . It is not true. It is worth mentioning the film has footage of the Director of the NSA flat out lying to Congress when being specifically asked about what the NSA is and isn’t capable of.
Clearly, Snowden was inspired by than Private Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning’s massive leaks of countless state department cables given to Wikileaks in order to bring out a much needed but missing public debate on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the overall so called “war on terror”.
Poitras’s film making style is rather unconventional. It might not be for audiences very used to standard cinema with highly stylized violence, or with heavy editing, or who are used to constant background music to draw out the atmosphere of any given scene. All those techniques are sparsely or never used. Instead, events unfold in real time.
At the hands of any other major film director or studio, it’s hard to imagine a lot of content would not have ended up being edited out for the sake of time. But again, that is a major brilliance of the film, because the audience watches real life fold as it is happening instead of just a “movie”. Citizen four is a film to dissect in the brain a bit after seeing it. It hits one like a brick, to process the reality the film depicts. The documentary can be compared to some truly great films such as The Conversation, All The President’s Men and the 2005 best foreign film (from Germany) The Lives of Others.
In the end, there is an incomplete ending which is perfectly appropriate. Snowden’s story is still incomplete. He is still held up in Moscow, having not yet been extradited. However, it could be an eventual matter of time before he is, and perhaps under the next presidency.
Before seeing the film (or after as well), it is very much worth reading Glenn Greenwald’s book No Place to Hide, detailing Greenwald’s point of view in meeting Edward Snowden and going through much of what is in the movie in more detail.
The film is Rated R for just a few uses of that infamous F word. But obviously, nothing is ever gratuitous or strong. No violence, no sexual scenes, crudeness or vulgarity of any kind. So, with so many films being Rated R for many various reasons that are all very different, I think the rating system is pointless, never of any context and should be replaced.