Citizenfour won the 2015 Oscar for Best Documentary. Even though I have not seen the other four nominees this did not surprise me. The subject matter of this film is Edward Snowden – the man who exposed the fact that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) had been spying on millions of Americans with no warrants and without even the broad “preventing terrorism” justification given to it under the Patriot Act. And this was just the beginning; the revelations continued to come out and had a worldwide impact. Guess what? There was actually a person there with Snowden as it was breaking in the news and she captured it all on camera. The result is an amazing inside look at the few days that shocked millions.
The title of the film comes from the moniker that Snowden used when he first contacted documentarian Laura Poitras. It was apparently a reference to the fact that there had been three prior whistleblowers who had exposed illegal activities like this. The contact from Snowden to Poitras was very minimal and for months she barely heard from him.
After a little more contact Poitras reached out to
U. S. journalist Glenn Greenwald and the two of
them arranged to meet with Snowden in Hong Kong. They only had hints of what kind of
information he might have for them, but they knew it could be big.
When they do meet him he has already crossed his own personal Rubicon. He knows that the information he has taken will end his life as he knows it. He has left behind his girlfriend of ten years and she doesn’t even know that he is doing this. He deliberately kept her in the dark so that she couldn’t be prosecuted.
The first day in the hotel room Poitras and Greenwald listen to a nervous Snowden explain who he is, how he got the info, and why they can trust that it is for real. Snowden is also a little paranoid about leaks via their laptops, phones, etc. and explains why. I’m kind of surprised he allowed the camera in the room, but as it goes along you get the understanding that he believes there is a real chance that he will end up dead or “missing” and he wants there to be a record of why he is doing what he is doing.
After the first day of interviews, Greenwald brings in British journalist Ewen MacAskill to provide a second set of ears, but also to allow for a broader range of coverage for when the story gets released. Snowden continues to amaze both of them with the information he has. We see footage from the news services such as CNN when the story first gets reported. And in a modern meta moment we see Snowden watching the coverage and commenting back on it.
Each day more and more information comes out, first about the spying in the U.S. then around the rest of the planet, including in the U.K. where companies routinely provide private information to the government, much like cable companies in the U.S. have also been doing.
By this time the authorities have figured out it must be Snowden and they are looking for him. We see Snowden on the phone with his girlfriend and he’s visibly upset at what she’s telling him has been happening at their house. He advises her to cooperate fully and not give them any way to justify trying to arrest her for aiding and abetting him.
We see Snowden finally accepting the fact that he’s throwing his fate in other people’s hands as he prepares to reveal himself in
Hong Kong. The doc
has a postscript for those that are not aware of what happened. He ends up getting political asylum in Russia and his
girlfriend is allowed to join him there.
When this film won the Oscar Poitras and Greenwald were on stage, along
with Snowden’s girlfriend.
This is a subject that will obviously push a lot of buttons on both sides. Is Snowden a patriot for revealing the illegal activities of his government, or is he a traitor for revealing governmental secrets not just to Americans, but to the whole world?
The filmmaker and journalists are obviously on Snowden’s side, but I did not feel that the film makes him out to be a saint. He is asked several times why he is doing this, what he thinks people will think of him, what he thinks will happen to him. He seems like a person with a solid grasp of reality, and one who spent a lot of time thinking about the consequences of this course of action before he took it.
You really have to see this film for yourself and make up your own mind. Do I think it will change the minds of anyone who thinks Snowden is a definite traitor? Probably not, but it will at least make him a human being, not some demon out to bring down the government. Conversely, do I think this will change the minds of anyone who feels he is a hero? Probably not here, either.
I found this view into the events as they were happening to be riveting. Yes, I already knew what the ultimate outcome was going to be, but at the time of filming none of them, including the journalists and documentarian, knew if they were risking arrest or worse, and there is a palpable feeling of high stakes for all of them. Unless you have zero interest in these events I highly recommend this film.
Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars