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.