This Academy-Award-winning documentary for 2015 opens with a request by Edward Snowden for an encrypted line to ensure his e-mail will not be intercepted and be a target of government surveillance. Calling himself “citizenfour”, only the director Laura Poitras (who also received a Pulitzer) understands the importance of this request and can implement the encryption code easily. Then begins the spellbinding story of Snowden, our decade’s most famous whistleblower, in a Hong Kong hotel room in June 2013. Citizenfour.
“Just walk me through it,” Glenn Greenwald , journalist for The Guardian (UK) instructs Snowden. And we go through the unraveling of our privacy as Snowden tells his story. One camera shot underscores the immense reach of Big Brother. When the twenty-nine-year old analyst enters a password, he asks for his “magic mantle of power,” a red sweatshirt. Pulling it over his head, the boyish Snowden looks like a child with a flashlight reading a scary nighttime story under his blanket. He looks at the hotel phone, knowing it can hide a chip for monitoring the conversation in the room. This is a James Bond nightmare. Only it is not fiction.
This movie could have been like the great whistleblowing thriller “All the President’s Men,” in its dramatization of Deep Throat. Snowden shares his most shocking information with Greenwald via scribbled handwritten notes. Seeing the ultimate computer geek resort to writing notes — then tearing them into tiny pieces — is a powerful statement indeed.
However, “Citizenfour”, for this viewer, devotes too much screen time to the codes which are encrypted (lots of black screens with white random alphabet scattered throughout) instead of the Ed Snowden who worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, as a subcontractor for the National Security Agency. Retired NSA technical director William Binney is also interviewed, discussing the perils of government access to personal communication. He supports Snowden’s credibility.
More footage is needed to humanize a courageous young computer analyst. Yes, he is naïve in not realizing the impact his whistleblowing would have on his life and those he cared most for. But Snowden is also idealistic. His motivation in leaking the surveillance tactics of the US government through sophisticated covert cyber systems, both domestic and foreign, was to shed light on its pervasiveness.
The only emotion truly heartfelt through this documentary is when Snowden is visibly upset, and momentarily at a loss for words when his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, calls to say she is being watched and questioned by the government. Snowden has left her behind when he flees to Hong Kong in order to protect her. Lindsay had not known the reason for his sudden departure. One of the minor revelations of “Citizenfour” is that Mills joins him in Moscow, where he is granted asylum, and they now live together in a government apartment, one of the final scenes of this film. An unsettling thought for this viewer: The government knows where they both are now.
Were the Snowden documents simply revealing or actually gamechanging? That’s the question, and I would have liked to see more on the issue of balancing surveillance and homeland security, on power and profit. One shouldn’t underestimate the value of revelation, or truth, alone. This impacts all of us. And our sense of privacy and freedom.
Note: See the website deadline.com for the story of the difficulty finding financing and distribution for “Citizenfour”.