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Film Review: Citizenfour

Citizenfour (2014; Directed by Laura Poitras)

The story of Edward Snowden, the NSA (National Security Agency) computer analyst contractor who leaked digital volumes upon volumes of information about the United States government’s top-secret data collection operations and thus revealed a sophisticated and alarming system of state surveillance of private citizens in America and worldwide, is one of the most vital political stories of our time. Citizenfour tells his story practically in real time via the camera of Laura Poitras, the intrepid political documentarian whom he first covertly contacted in his gradual, intricately-planned process of releasing the explosive information about the wide-net surveillance and data collection program.

Indeed it is Snowden’s intricacy, the elaborately considered care with which he chooses his every word just as he chose his remarkable, brave and personally dangerous course of action, that comes through so strongly through Poitras’ lens. The hyperbolic mudslinging directed at him by U.S. government spokespeople, politicians, and media (traitor, radical, Russian agent, even terrorist) invested in delegitimizing his damaging revelations about the NSA’s oppressive overreach of constitutional bounds fails to stick to this characterization.

Snowden states his objections to becoming a public figure via his whistleblowing as well as his reluctance to allow the personality-driven media to make him, rather than the compendious official abuses he exposed, the focus of the story. Still, Snowden has been in the public eye for a few years now, earning much of his income in exile through speaking engagements, and his statements and even his actions since his historic info-dump have not always demonstrated such exquisite circumspection. But in Citizenfour, in the midst of the act itself, he demonstrates a tremendously exacting determination to get every detail of his revelations precisely right. No wonder the NSA trusted him to work on their data dragnet program in the first place.

Citizenfour moves slowly in establishing the developing relationship between Poitras the investigative filmmaker (who remains ever offscreen) and Snowden the prized source, with the text of their encrypted email exchanges sometimes displayed onscreen and sometimes read in voiceover by Poitras, in one instance over footage of the construction work being done on a massive government data centre. But the film gains traction and becomes a galvanizing experience when Snowden joins Poitras and her camera, as well as Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, to hole up in a Hong Kong hotel room for days on end.

There, Snowden and the journalists whom he essentially hand-picked to sift through the information he leaked them about the NSA’s data collection program talk through its operations, its aims, its reach, and the consequences he expects and accepts for himself for revealing this stunning information to the public (he’s highly astute about even those implications; at one point, he tells his collaborators that he expects the authorities to charge him using some obscure and perhaps legally dubious 19th-century law, and sure enough when the charges come, they are under the World War I-era Espionage Act).

Basically, what he tells them is that the NSA, in concert with major telecommunications and internet companies, intercepts, collects and can instantly search the emails, cell phone calls, text messages, and internet activity of millions of Americans and other digital users outside the country as well (including heads of state, such as German Chancellor Andrea Merkel). It’s an extensive mass surveillance system straight out of Orwell which NSA officials told the U.S. Congress point-blank did not exist. Snowden could not countenance working on a secret, unconstitutional invasion of citizens’ privacy any longer, and decided to disclose it to the public in spite of the price that he himself knew he would pay for that choice. With the help of experienced journalists like Greenwald and MacAskill to sort through the documents he gives them and decide what is in the public interest to publish and what might be dangerous classified information to put out in the world (a stark contrast to WikiLeaks’ fanatical insistence on full disclosure), Snowden watches from his room as his revelations, and then his identity, break into the media.

It’s difficult not to be a little shaken by the depths of government surveillance that Snowden reveals, but the paranoid caution that Snowden displays on camera (at one point using a laptop with a bedsheet over his head and the computer to frustrate any possible “visual collection”) deepens the alarm. If someone who knows what he knows about this system is this paranoid, it must be justified (though Snowden’s position in that Hong Kong hotel room is hardly analogous to that of ordinary citizens texting and emailing about crushes, grocery lists, surprise party plans, or even political opinions). Even Greenwald, who has been writing trenchantly about the American government’s post-9/11 curtailment of civil liberties for years and has not a single scale on his eyes as regards the secretive and often malignant operations of the national security apparatus, is intermittently shocked by what Snowden tells him, especially when he reveals that a government watch list runs to over a million names.

Snowden eventually leaves the hotel room, Hong Kong, and Asia entirely, eventually winding up living in Russia indefinitely after the U.S. State Department revokes his passport while he was in transit through Moscow (he’s still there today, at an undisclosed location). Despite his qualms about celebrity and notoriety, and perhaps at least partly because of those qualms, Snowden is presented in Citizenfour as a sacrificing hero, a sort of secular ascetic saint suffering in relatively comfortable exile for America’s sins against its own fabled liberty.

Poitras respects her subject’s wish to not be the subject to some extent, leaving the only background on Snowden’s life to be provided by the man himself, but she’s too good a filmmaker to miss the human story at the heart of the larger, tentacular political one. If anything, it seems likely that she weighs the core issues more heavily than does Oliver Stone in his recent adaptation of Snowden’s story, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the infamous leaker (as much as I enjoy Gordon-Levitt, watching the real Snowden makes it clear that the only choice to play the man on film is mid-1990s Edward Norton). But the camera seeks out a star, and the forthright, intelligent, unerringly accurate Snowden is clearly its preferred focal point.

But let’s respect Snowden’s expressed wishes and focus on the cause of his exile, the sprawling program of official surveillance that he exposed and that, despite that exposure, remains in place. Snowden and Greenwald feel such a program contravenes the U.S. constitution and citizens’ privacy rights, while national security professionals insist that such trespasses, while regrettable, are the necessary cost of protecting the American people from threats they cannot begin to fully understand. Whatever you think of either of those opposing arguments (and I side with the privacy activists in finding the latter reasoning flawed; insert your contextless Benjamin Franklin “liberty/security” epigram here), the concept of a system of total surveillance of all American citizens at the disposal of the President and the government is more than a little troubling.

One might try to argue with any measure of authority that one commander-in-chief, say Barack Obama, would be of impeccable-enough character to only use this avalanche of personal data against truly dangerous enemies of the nation (although Greenwald has frequently asserted that the current President and administration is hardly above reproach in this regard). Even granting this (and we do not), what’s to stop an unstable authoritarian demagogue (I’m trying to think of one who might have a chance of becoming President but blanking at the present moment) from using the information to vengefully persecute personal enemies, discriminate against minority groups, or generally run a Real American neo-Stasi? Basically, nothing. Outside of this worst-case scenario, such power over the nation’s populace being entrusted to any government agency has disturbing implications, particularly if said agency is as non-transparent and immune to electoral pressures as the NSA.

Citizenfour is a conduit for these issues; indeed it focuses them like a laser beam. Despite Snowden’s personal sacrifice and the ongoing crusade of figures like Greenwald, the American surveillance state continues apace. The neoliberal Democrats who rule the White House are temperamentally, politically and ideologically disinclined to challenge the national security apparatus and the Republicans who control Congress are consistently chomping at the bit to wield it against their expanding plethora of enemies, real and imagined, internal and foreign. The discourse of projected strength remains the language of power in the United States, and neither faction of the country’s polarized political class nurturs much of a desire to challenge that orthodoxy. The force of Edward Snowden’s disclosures as narrativized in Citizenfour has not catalyzed such a challenge, necessary though it increasingly proves to be. But Snowden’s act may well have pulled back a curtain on mass surveillance and revealed something that cannot be hidden again, and the battle between privacy and security will rage ever on.

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