If “Citizenfour” sounds like something out of 1984 or The Prisoner, well, it’s even worse. It’s the pseudonym Edward Snowden used when he first approached, over the Internet, documentary filmmaker and muckraking journalist Laura Poitras, hoping to find someone trustworthy and with a pulpit who could share with the world what he’d discovered about the outrageous mass surveillance the NSA is engaged in. He’d chosen her based on her previous work — films including My Country, My Country and The Oath, which are highly critical of the “War on Terror” — and the fact that she remained defiant in the face of ongoing harassment from the U.S. government because of that work, such as being targeted for detainment and interrogation whenever she crossed a border into or out of the U.S.
We know now why Snowden was being so ultra careful. The sweeping mass surveillance he revealed makes Big Brother look like an amateur, and the capabilities of what he here calls “the greatest weapon for oppression in history” are so immense that among his cautions to Poitras as he instructed her how to set up a secure method for them to communicate electronically was this: “Assume your adversary is capable of one trillion guesses [at a password or encryption key] per second.”
Oh. You should be aware that the fact that you have accessed the page on the Internet that contains my positive review of this film has been recorded in an NSA database, and could be used against you if we allow the situation to get worse. (I’m sure I’m already on a list somewhere, so there’s no point in me not repeating this: Edward Snowden is a hero. A hero. And a patriot. He is the very definition of patriotism, in fact, for revealing that the American government is treating its citizens in the most un-American way imaginable, and is treating non-Americans even worse. For shame, America.)
If you’re afraid, then we’ve already lost.
Here, in Citizenfour, we see the relationship between Poitras and Snowden develop online, until it culminates in the now-famous days-long video interview she conducted with Snowden in a hotel room in Hong Kong, along with fellow muckraker Glenn Greenwald (who was then a columnist with the Guardian), and featuring a small appearance by Ewan MacAskill (the Guardian’s defense and security correspondent), who also interviewed Snowden. You’ve already seen the short Snowden video last summer. The bulk of Citizenfour is much more of the footage shot at that time. Snowden explains what motivated him to come forward with what he had discovered (it was when he saw that although President Obama had promised to put the brakes on the outrageous overreaches of the Bush Administration, he hit the gas instead). He discusses why he’s not afraid to do what he’s doing (the “curtailment” of “intellectual freedom” that mass surveillance induces is worse than prison). And he shows a remarkable awareness of the fine line that would have to be walked regarding identifying himself publicly while trying to ensure that the story did not become one of personality over policy.
“It’s not science fiction,” Snowden says at one point. “This stuff is happening right now.” Which makes the dystopian atmosphere here undismissable. Poitras’s film is often chilling — as when they all wonder how and whether they are being listened to in the hotel room where they’re conducting the interview — and sometimes bitterly ironic: Poitras includes a clip of a White House spokesman saying, after Snowden’s name is out, that he should return to the U.S., where he will be treated in accordance with all Constitutional protections. Except we know — thanks to Snowden’s whistleblowing! — that the U.S. government is violating, on a daily basis, the Constitutionally guaranteed rights of everyone.
And then there’s the World War I-era law under which Snowden has been charged with “espionage,” a law that itself precludes any possible defense Snowden might offer. That’s some true 1984-level shit.
I’ve only touched on the real-life horrors Citizenfour delves in to, though most of them won’t be surprising if you’ve been paying attention over the past year. Buy a ticket to this film… and use your credit card, so the NSA knows you care about this stuff.