- on Friday, 21 November 2014 08:14
- by Frank Wilkins
In Laura Poitras’ gripping documentary Citizenfour, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the National Security Agency who leaked classified documents on the agency’s top-secret surveillance programs, continually insists he’s not the story. But in spite of the extreme measures taken, he unavoidably became as big a part of the earth-shattering story as were the secrets he exposed in 2013. And that’s what makes Poitras’ story so impactful: like a real-life spy thriller, we’re given unprecedented, first-hand access to the man and his motivations during the actual moments he turns over damning documents that would stagger the confidence of American citizens in their government and eventually lead to Snowden’s temporary asylum in Russia.
As the film opens, we’re in a cramped Hong Kong hotel room where the nerdy, bespectacled Snowden has secretly arranged to meet with filmmaker Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald. Snowden’s secret email communications requesting the meeting are read in ominous voice-over by Poitras, then throughout the film their back-and-forth communiques are typed across the screen as the hotel room scenes play out in the background.
We learn from the detailed precautions Snowden takes in setting up the meeting that he is a highly intelligent operator who leaves no details to chance. So imagine the tension and heightened level of paranoia in the room when the hotel’s fire alarm system goes haywire at the exact moment the first round of documents are being transferred. Snowden is alarmed enough to contact the front desk to inquire about the alerts before launching into a discussion about new technology that allows for outsiders to listen through a telephone even while it’s still on the hook. He then slowly disconnects the phone from its cord.
These paralyzing fly-on-the-wall moments are credited to Poitras’ filmmaking skills as she frames Snowden’s face while he watches the aftermath of the divulgement play out on CNN. Despite the bland setting of a rather drab hotel room – with all apologies to Mira Hotel – and mind-numbingly tedious details behind the secretive programs, the tension in the room is thick enough to cut with a paring knife as Snowden, Poitras, and Greenwald are forced to make life-changing decisions on the fly while the media storm begins raging outside. The actual events that shook the world are still fresh in our minds, but are far enough removed that we’re able to examine with a bit more objective clarity. However, that doesn’t stop the impact of the revelations from scaring the holy living hell out of us… all over again.
Snowden comes across as smart, detail-oriented, and totally devoted to doing the right thing. And he clearly comprehends the trouble it will bring him. But if Citizenfour – the code name Snowden used during his original contact with Poitras – has a weakness, it’s that we’re still no closer to understanding the man than we were in 2013 when the news originally broke.
In spite of a few peeks behind the idealogical curtain, such as his adamant pleas to Greenwald and The Guardian reporter Ewen Macaskill that he not become part of the story, Snowden seems to curiously change his mind at some point and eyes obscurity and asylum rather than falling on his sword. Perhaps it’s this seeming aloofness and unapproachability that has turned Snowden into some kind of side-show freak we watch with one eye covered rather than as an embraceable American hero.
Then there’s the glaring irony of Snowden’s final decision that is difficult for us to digest. For someone harboring such apprehension about not wanting to live in a society where everything we say is recorded, his eyeing Russia as a better option is glaringly perplexing. Then again, perhaps that’s the point behind all this. Maybe we’re now living in a time where there are no secrets, and it’s foolish for us to think otherwise. There’s a sobering thought for you.
MPAA Rating: R for language.
Runtime: 114 mins
Director: Laura Poitras
Cast: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Jacob Appelbaum (as themselves)
Memorable Movie Quote: "I don't know why they came with their guns drawn."
Official Site: https://citizenfourfilm.com/
Release Date: November 21, 2014 (limited)
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: August 25, 2015
Synopsis: A documentarian and a reporter travel to Hong Kong for the first of many meetings with Edward Snowden.
Available on Blu-ray - August 25, 2015
Screen Formats: 1.85:1
Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Discs: 50GB Blu-ray Disc; Single disc (1 BD)
Region Encoding: A, B
Anchor Bay Entertainment releases the 2014 Academy Award-winning documentary with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that nicely captures details and textures. Documentaries are usually made on the cheap but thanks to the content being recorded with a better quality camera (specifically, Sony's NEX-FS100) there is a better overall quality to much of the documentary. Colors are graded well and so is clarity. Skintones are displayed well with a lot of fine detail being noticeable. Even location shots – some aerial – ripple with nice detail. The sound, presented here in a decent 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is solid.
Culled from previously available sources, this releases features a trio of featurettes that, while not necessary, are interesting. Up first is a collection of deleted scenes that go in depth about the philosophy that guided Snowden in spilling the secrets, the governments "red flags", and hacked Brazilian websites. Next is an hour long discussion on the film with Poitras, Greenwald and Snowden (appearing from video feed) and moderated by New York Times' media journalist David Carr. A 30-minute Q&A with Poitras in front of the Film Society of Lincoln Center is next. Rounding out the collection is an 8-minute documentary from Poitras about the NSA mathematician and cryptologist William Binney that she was working on when Snowden reached out to her.
- Deleted Scenes (14 min)
- New York Times Timestalks with Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden and David Carr (60 min)
- Film Society of Lincoln Center Q&A with Laura Poitras and Dennis Lim (30 min)
- The Program – A New York Times Op-Doc by Laura Poitras (8 min)