The New York Film Festival closes tonight with Birdman, but the real closer—at least in spirit—was last night’s world premiere of CITIZENFOUR (Grade: A-), Laura Poitras’ gripping, just-finished documentary on her meetings with Edward Snowden. Poitras (The Oath) had planned to conclude her 9/11 trilogy with a film on surveillance, even before Snowden contacted her as a conduit for his revelations. Poitras’ account of those events makes a natural bookend for a festival that, particularly with its opening-night and centerpiece selections, has been rich with paranoid narratives.
Like Gone Girl, CITIZENFOUR is a procedural and a countdown, ticking off the days that Snowden spent in a Hong Kong hotel room meeting with Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and Greenwald’s Guardian colleague Ewen MacAskill. Snowden’s disclosures about the extent of the NSA’s data collection are old news at this point, yet CITIZENFOUR does an excellent job of balancing what we already know with behind-the-scenes discussions of how the information should be released. Snowden insists that he’s “not the story” but also recognizes the advantages of revealing his identity. As the days go by, the anxiety in the room seems to grow.
By necessity, this is an even more personal documentary than Poitras’ previous films; many of her encrypted online chats with Snowden are spelled out on-screen. But the heart of the movie takes place in that hotel room. Snowden comes across as at once cool-headed—considering the circumstances—and boundlessly suspicious. He explains how easily the hotel’s phones might be miked, shows gallows humor in chiding Greenwald for lax password protection, and hides under what appears to be a sheet—he jokes that it’s his “magic mantle of power”—before typing in his own info. At one point, the group wonders whether several oddly timed fire-alarm tests are directed at them.
Viewed in its entirety, Poitras’ trilogy can now be seen as examining three prongs of the post-9/11 world: governance, terror, and the electorate. The Oscar-nominated My Country, My Country (2006) dealt with an Iraqi election; the riveting The Oath (2010) probed the paradoxes in the life of a former Al-Qaida recruiter. CITIZENFOUR, as its title might imply, concerns the rights of citizens—or as Snowden puts it, “state power and the people’s ability to meaningfully oppose that power.”
CITIZENFOUR might seem like a warmed-over news recap if Poitras didn’t know how to turn it into a bona fide movie—a stripped-down thriller worthy of Alan J. Pakula. She takes full advantage of the claustrophobia of the hotel space, which acquires a before-and-after quality. The secrecy of the early meetings gives way to a more frenzied atmosphere as soon as Snowden becomes the most sought-after interview in the world. (“I’m afraid you have the wrong room,” he says to a caller, before hanging up and telling everyone that it was The Wall Street Journal.) He tries out an ineffective disguise and even has a discussion with his lawyer about the difficulty they’ll have hailing a cab. The outside clips are also well chosen: Snowden’s legal team discusses how prosecution under the Espionage Act renders their client’s most obvious defenses moot. A shot of Snowden and his girlfriend in Moscow, filmed from outside their window, subtly underlines the theme of surveillance. The movie concludes with Snowden learning of a revelation that even he finds shocking.
Supporting their unabashed work of advocacy, Poitras, Greenwald, journalist Jeremy Scahill, and members of Snowden’s family all took the stage after the premiere, to standing ovations. Scahill, comparing Poitras favorably to Kathryn Bigelow, called her “quite likely the baddest-ass director” now working. When asked about how she felt about having completed her trilogy, Poitras suggested she didn’t think much had changed since she began it.
Technically the fest’s closing-night feature, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s nonsensically punctuated Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) (Grade: B+) is, formally speaking, a repudiation of all of his other films. While 21 Grams and Babel indulged in associative montage and facile cross cutting, Birdman is the digital era’s latest ode to André Bazin: It’s filmed so that the majority of it appears to unfold in a single take. You could easily make an M&M-jar-type game out of guessing the real number of shots. I counted 50, but cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, supplies so many swish pans and lighting and focal changes that it’s difficult to tell.
As a device, the movie’s use of long takes doesn’t match that of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, which is more deliberate in its placement of cuts and its violations of the proscenium. As a stunt, it’s less purist than the high-wire act of Russian Ark. But Birdman does use its sweeping camera movements to find a correlative to the immediacy of theater. Set over the course of two days, it tells the goofily self-reflexive tale of an actor, Riggan (Michael Keaton), best known for playing a masked hero named Birdman, as he prepares to open his adaptation of Raymond Carver on Broadway.
Traveling up and down stairways and inside and outside of the theater, Birdman is easily Iñárritu’s most playful film, exulting in both the comedy of the scenario and the formal properties of the medium. Riggan argues with his Birdman character, who’s heard in voice-over; the constant jazz drumming is revealed to be the work of a street musician. The actors, too, are a delight. Reflecting on his life and place in the world, Riggan hashes things out with his just-out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone), his ex-wife (Amy Ryan), the actress he’s currently seeing (Andrea Riseborough), and a ceaselessly obnoxious co-star (Edward Norton), the former lover of the play’s lead actress (Naomi Watts).
Birdman is more effective as a film about the exhilarating rush of creation and anticipation than it is as a dissection of its star’s persona. (Call it Being Michael Keaton; the actor gives an intricate, layered performance.) Reality and dream intertwine. The (probably) fantasy sequence in which a theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) tells Riggan that she’s going to destroy his play, sight unseen, ranks as the biggest middle finger extended to reviewers since Lady In The Water. The placement of that scene suggests it’s not real, but part of the fun of Birdman is that it seems to collapse time and space, existing in a realm that’s purely of the cinema.
Finally, I feel obliged to append a note to my review of Inherent Vice, which I compared to The Master, calling both movies “film noir.” That categorization seemed to irk some readers. Arguing over what constitutes noir is nothing new; even the original noir theorists couldn’t agree on which movies qualified. There’s an entire collection of books devoted to whether the term refers to a genre, a style, a mood, or a time-bound cycle that lasted from World War II until the late 1950s. But I submit that The Master more than meets the criteria, particularly under Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumenton’s pioneering definition, in that it is “oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel.” The themes it deals with—repression, the returning veteran, charlatanism, the fear of settling down—are staples of Hitchcock, Preminger, and Ulmer. Even in 70mm, the camera work, tracking Freddie Quell’s bobbing body as he walks beside the Alethia, evokes The Lady From Shanghai and Touch Of Evil. Yes, it’s a different strain of noir from the one in Inherent Vice, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s choice of material for back-to-back films seemed worth noting. Both movies cast Joaquin Phoenix as a willful outsider, pining for the woman who got away.