Director Laura Poitras's Citizenfour boasts an hour or so of tense, intimate, world-shaking footage you might not quite believe you're watching. Poitras shows us history as it happens, scenes of such intimate momentousness that the movie's a must-see piece of work even if, in its totality, it's underwhelming as argument or cinema.
Here's Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and, off screen, Poitras herself, holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room, plotting the revelation of the National Security Agency's spying on our phone calls, e-mails, web searches, Amazon purchases and everything else. Here's Snowden the activist conferring with Greenwald the journalist about how to make the story about Snowden's leaks rather than about Snowden himself. And here's Poitras — journalist and activist — capturing their elation, their seriousness, their idealism, their spy-story jitters. Snowden unhooks a land line from the wall, explaining that even with the receiver down, a dedicated snoop could listen in; later, he huddles with his laptop beneath a blanket as he enters the password for an NSA database he's mining for documents. A couple days in, a fire alarm clangs, and for a heartbeat, nobody breathes: Are the powers-that-be trying to flush them outside?
The planning is both thrilling and mundane. Snowden explains the massive scale of government spying, with the stolen files to back it up, but he also lectures Greenwald about not keeping the same sensitive SD card jacked into his laptop for months at a time. Trim and proud, given to stiff pontificating, Snowden relishes this seizing of history, just as Poitras's camera relishes him. He's become the outsider hero he's imagined willing himself into.
Directed by Laura Poitras.
But then, once Greenwald publishes his first Guardian story on Snowden's revelations, we see cracks in the whistleblower's principled serenity. Even before he's publicly claimed responsibility, his girlfriend back home is being interrogated. His voice scrapes in his throat as he tries — and fails — to describe to Poitras the difference between knowing this might happen and knowing she's actually going through it. Soon after that, Greenwald interviews him, on camera, introducing Snowden to the world — and removing him from it. Condemning yourself for a cause you know to be just is still condemning yourself, and by his last day in that hotel room, Snowden appears wan and harried, his face breaking out. Just watching, you might feel the same. Soon, that phone — plugged back in for some reason — won't stop ringing, and Snowden realizes his freedom is now dependent on people who don't take it as seriously as he does: Witness the Hong Kong lawyer who suggests that Snowden could just cross town in a cab.
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Poitras steeps us in these scenes. As in her previous films The Oath and My Country, My Country, she's adept at illuminating multiple angles of complex, even prickly people. Here, though, she's a convert rather than a journalist, and she never bothers with some of the basics: The film takes as a given the NSA's perfidy and Snowden's heroism, offering little to persuade anyone unconvinced of either. More troubling, Snowden never faces any tough questions about which documents should be released, and to what end. He's the expert, and Greenwald is trying to keep up. Citizenfour marvels at what it could be probing.