Laura Poitras’ documentary film attempts to give an inside look at the Edward Snowden NSA surveillance scandal of 2013 by showing an exclusive interview with Snowden himself during the days in which his stories broke and giving a timeline of events that occurred during the aftermath.
This revealing documentary begins by playing like a modern day spy novella. Watching the opening 20 minutes of this film, there are moments when it is easy to forget that this is real. Encrypted e-mails are exchanged between a journalist and an anonymous source, Poitras is forced to move outside of the U.S. to avoid TSA harassment, suspicions are raised about a potentially untrustworthy government. It all sounds like the thrilling escalation of a James Bond adventure. When the reality does settles in, and the Snowden interview begins, you realize that this isn’t all that exciting. It’s just scary.
The Snowden interview is compelling. It is a vantage point to a nationwide scandal that can’t be found anywhere else. Snowden himself is candid and articulate, giving insight into his motivations and the specific ins-and-outs of the NSA’s surveillance protocol. He grapples with abandoning his life and family and the possibility of never feeling completely unwatched again.
The documentary is shot simplistically, stripping back the artistry for the sake of letting the information breath. It is compelling and attention-grabbing. From a cinema standpoint, it could easily be thrown out as essentially a 2-hour long news expose. But it seems that the content is too important to pass up. Watching Snowden’s revelations play out day-to-day packages the news story into a haunting snapshot of a world in which nobody is truly alone. And the subsequent media backlash upon the identification of Snowden as a whistleblower works as a tense character study of a man dealing with the magnitude of what he has just done and how it will ultimately alter his life forever.
Citizenfour is a compelling watch. It isn’t the most cinematic experience, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s a piece of film journalism that raises debate over the issues of our current time, and it raises those issues in an engaging fashion. It’s definitely worth a viewing.