You should disabuse any notion that Citizenfour is just a film. It is more than that. It is impossible to divorce the global sociopolitical impact of the events this documentary depicts and the impact of the film itself, because in many respects they are one and the same. Ten months ago, when this film was first screened, journalists reported on the film’s final moments as shocking information was revealed that had not been divulged prior to that film’s release. This mere “movie” is a big fucking deal.
If you are unaware of the controversy surrounding the leaks provided by NSA agent Edward Snowden, you have either been living under a rock and off the grid, or you have been willfully and blissfully ignorant of world events in the past two years. Snowden is responsible for exposing NSA programs that tracked the communications activities of millions of people worldwide, including American citizens on American soil. Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras was among the first that Snowden (at the time using the alias “Citizenfour”) contacted with leads as to the immensity of the government’s activities, and so Poitras found herself an integral part of a massive historical event.
Such access is any documentarian’s wet dream, and yet, much like Snowden himself, Poitras does a commendable job of keeping herself out of the limelight as much as possible. As Snowden himself says many times across multiple interviews, the focus should not be upon him or his personality, but should be on the programs he has exposed. Poitras only portrays her communications with Snowden as are necessary to tell his story, and that level of restraint in light of such world-changing circumstances is entirely commendable.
Despite that, though, Poitras missteps in her insistence on focusing on Snowden as a person, rather than just as a vehicle to expose government injustice. For sure, she spends plenty of time on the information that Snowden leaked to the world and on the justified paranoias that Snowden feels in his insistence on disconnecting phones and hiding computer monitors from potential prying eyes. However, despite Snowden’s insistence to the contrary, she spends time on the man behind the information, showing the mundanities of his existence in a Hong Kong hotel room and providing information on his personal life. It is minimal to be sure, and it does admittedly add a human element to what is otherwise a macroscale story, but it also feels disingenuous to the intent Snowden had in minimizing his celebrity to the greatest degree possible.
That said, Citizenfour should be on everyone’s required viewing list. If you haven’t been following the news in the past two years, this film simultaneously acts as a primer and a foreshadowing of things to come. It is almost a year old now, but it is still relevant at the time of its home video release and likely will be for many years to come as the true extent of the NSA’s invasions into our private lives come more into focus. Watch this film. You will never look at how you communicate the same way ever again.