How can a no-frills documentary create suspense worthy of
Alfred Hitchcock? Filmmaker Laura Poitras manages to do just that as she holes
up with a young American whistleblower in his Hong Kong hotel room for eight
days as he spills volatile secrets about the ways the NSA is spying on American
citizens. The young man’s name is Ed—no, make that Edward—Snowden, and Citizenfour places us in the crucible
where he, Poitras, and two journalists from The
Guardian (Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill) brew one of the most
explosive stories of our time.
The contrast between the incendiary information Snowden is
providing and the mundane details of this eight-day marathon is what makes Citizenfour so compelling. The hotel
phone rings and we’re conditioned to expect a moment of drama, but it’s just
room service inquiring if Snowden enjoyed his meal. A fire alarm goes off repeatedly
and raises everyone’s suspicions until they learn that it’s merely a test.
In this and
other ways, Citizenfour humanizes the
headline story and paints Snowden as a sincere fellow who, unlike Julian
Assange of Wikileaks, doesn’t want to draw attention to himself. One of his
principal worries in revealing what he knows is that in our culture of
celebrity he will become the story. That’s
why he chooses to funnel his information through journalists and a fearless
filmmaker, after establishing “secure” contact (a fascinating substory in
itself) and arranging a rendezvous.
In essence, Citizenfour is a spy movie, and a damn
good one. It invites and demands debate about the larger topic of America’s
surveillance policy in the post 9/11 world. Poitras shows foreign newspapers,
government spokesmen, and individuals who are much more upset about the U.S.
invasion of their privacy than Americans. That’s why Citizenfour is such an important (and relevant) piece of work.