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Citizenfour, the third documentary in Laura Poitras‘ trilogy about U.S. government response to 9/11, chronicles the Edward Snowden/NSA spying debacle in real time as it unfolds. The film opens in early 2013 as Poitras, a journalist, receives a stream of heavily encrypted emails from an anonymous source named Citizenfour (later revealed as 29-year-old NSA data analyst Snowden), who claims to have explosive top-secret information. He’ll only entrust said information to her and Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, though, so after months of fruitless email communiqués, she and Greenwald finally arrange to meet the source in Hong Kong.
Over the next eight days, holed up in a Kowloon hotel room, Poitras films every moment of the journalists’ interactions with Snowden as he unveils details of the insanely oppressive scope of the NSA’s phone, email and Web spying operation, and what it means for the American people (and the government, which has been lying about the existence of the program). Snowden alternately comes off as reserved, serious, geeky, maybe a bit shy—-undeniably brilliant, but naive when it comes to the workings of the media and the surefire publicity swirl that’s about to consume his world. He’s also rather paranoid when it comes to privacy, at one point putting a red sheet over his head to hide his laptop as he enters a password, hoping to avoid a camera’s “visual [data] collection.”
After a couple of days of Greenwald and Poitras publishing stories about the allegations (and the boatload of documents Snowden has stolen to support those allegations), Snowden decides to out himself to the media. He says he wants to keep faultless NSA workers out of the spotlight, and he makes a big deal of not dragging anyone else into his actions. He’s particularly concerned about his girlfriend Lindsay, who at one point mentions that there are NSA cops trying to break into their house in Hawaii.
Poitras, who never appears on camera, uses a cinéma–vérité style of filmmaking that captures every tense nuance of the situation as it escalates—-and oh, how it escalates. As soon as Greenwald breaks Snowden’s story in the Guardian, a shitstorm of epic proportions understandably ensues, and Snowden, who plays a bit of a martyr, begins to understand the impact his whistle-blowing will have on his family and his future.
The movie’s final scene reveals new details in a bombshell moment that had viewers in my theater audibly gasping, grunting, and exclaiming quiet “Oh my God”s. The film does its job, not only in creating an absorbing profile of one of the more divisive figures in recent years (traitor or hero?) but in exploring the role of the government in citizens’ lives and the extent that we should or shouldn’t trust it. Because of its immediacy and relevance, the drama unfolding in Citizenfour feels infinitely more riveting than a typical James Bond spy flick could ever dream of being.
Citizenfour is now playing at E Street Cinema.