Citizenfour—Movie Review

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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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July 2024