It’s difficult to critically engage with Citizenfour, as—experienced in the here and now—Laura Poitras’ landmark documentary about Edward Snowden isn’t a film so much as a big fucking deal. A primary account of how the world learned that the NSA has been spying on United States citizens, and also a meta-text that implicitly validates the information it uncovers, Citizenfour offers a remarkably intimate look at history as it happened. In fact, the immediacy of Poitras’ film is so remarkable that, at least for the immediate future, her craft is likely to be overshadowed by her access, her storytelling overshadowed by her opportunity.
Citizenfour is inextricable from its topicality in a way that no documentary has been in recent memory. Its existence announced a mere month before its world premiere, the film’s first public NYFF screening—which was held simultaneously with its first press screening—was attended by a number of journalists who were there not to evaluate the quality of Poitras’ work, but to report the revelations contained in its final scene. When was the last time a long-form documentary served as a mechanism for breaking news? The experience felt like a throwback to when audiences would learn about the latest developments of World War II from the newsreels screened before an evening’s feature presentation.
Before he was a household name (and charged with violating the Espionage Act), Edward Snowden was a 29-year-old NSA contractor. By some accounts a “low-level analyst,” but by his own estimation a genuine spy, Snowden worked at a job that presented him with one of the most urgent stories about post-9/11 America, and he was desperate for the help he required to tell it.
Citizenfour begins at the moment when Snowden identified Poitras as the perfect person for the job, and effectively summoned her into history. One day in early 2013, Poitras received an encrypted email from an anonymous source (an email similar to the one that journalist Glenn Greenwald had mistaken for spam when it was sent to him a few months prior). The message may have been unsolicited, but it wasn’t necessarily unprovoked. At the time, Poitras was already in the process of making a film about America’s ongoing slide toward becoming a surveillance state, the third chapter of a trilogy about the government’s global response to the 9/11 attacks. The anonymous tipster promised Poitras the kind of information that would have a seismic effect on her latest documentary. Less than six months later (and roughly 30 minutes into her movie), Poitras flew to Hong Kong to meet her source, who until that point had identified himself only by his web handle: “Citizenfour.”
This cryptic exchange snakes its way through the first act of Poitras’ clearly segmented film, which plays out with the thick paranoid tension of The Conversation. In between snippets of ominous archival footage, Poitras presents the text of her communications with Citizenfour. She reads the words aloud with an unnerved voice that sounds like an NPR host with a gun to her, or a self-avowed vérité filmmaker finding herself becoming an implicit part of her story. In agreeing to film Snowden, Poitras all but puts herself in his position. Improbably, and with great skill, Citizenfour eventually becomes more of a window into the violation of civil liberties than it does a mirror of the people who helped bring them to light, but the real and phenomenally rich human drama helps catalyze the film’s whistleblowing polemic.
Of course, it’s once Poitras, Snowden, and Greenwald hole up in that Hong Kong hotel room that Citizenfour becomes bluntly extraordinary. Over the course of eight days, Poitras’ camera observes that anonymous junior suite in downtown Kowloon metastasize into the eye of a global shitstorm, her focus trained on the furtive but hyper-articulate man sitting on the unwashed bed in front of her. Snowden is nothing if not an improbably cinematic subject. He’s smart to a fault—brilliant, even—and yet somehow still precocious at the brink of 30. His convictions are almost robotically unassailable, and yet uncertainty begins to creep in as he prepares to confront the next stage of his life. There’s a profound disconnect between the anonymity with which he enters the hotel, and—after vigorously defending the right to privacy—the worldwide super-fame with which he leaves it a week and change later.
If Snowden’s performance smacks of martyrdom, it’s a perception that Poitras takes advantage of without necessarily cultivating. Poitras’ decision to confine the Snowden footage to her film’s second act rather than allowing for his escape to serve as the climax makes for an inevitable downshift that borders on boredom. And yet, the risky structural gambit reaffirms where Poitras’ allegiances really lie: not with a person, but with the people. She values Snowden for his courage, not for his celebrity, and the film’s end stretch—including the “bombshell” announcement nested in its final scene—bends over backwards to deliberately diffuse the plot. This story, Poitras asserts with a small mountain of shredded paper, is not over. Not even close.