Citizenfour, which opens in limited release this weekend (you can catch it in Los Angeles at The Landmark at the Westside Pavilion), plays less like a conventional documentary than it does a spy thriller. It was even co-produced and edited by Mathilde Bonnefoy, who has worked on action films like Run Lola Run and The International. It’s a style that suits the film’s subject. Infused with paranoia, Citizenfour tackles the NSA’s massive surveillance program, which takes place both at home and abroad.
When contracted NSA programmer Edward Snowden first leaked evidence of these programs last year, he did so by talking directly with filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald, who was publishing articles within hours of the first meeting, received most of the international attention for the stories, at least until Snowden’s identity was revealed. Cinema is slower to catch up, and Poitras has spent the past year covering the developments that followed Snowden’s revelations. The result is Citizenfour.
The movie comes at a vital time. Americans have a worryingly short attention span for major news stories. The outrage over the NSA’s wide-ranging surveillance program, which spies on citizens without probable cause, has died down, though almost nothing has changed. It might be too much to hope that reviving the discussion will lead to progress, but already the great reviews for Citizenfour have helped remind people of these problems.
The subject of government surveillance hits close for Poitras. Snowden chose to come to her with his information because she was already on one of the Department of Homeland Security’s watchlists. The reason for this? Her acclaimed 2006 film My Country, My Country, which documented the daily lives of Iraqis living under the U.S. occupation. As a result, she’s been held by airport security over 40 times in eight years. Far from being deterred by this treatment, Poitras went on to direct another documentary about the Middle East: the award-winning The Oath, which got up close and personal with a former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden who now works as a taxi driver in Yemen. Citizenfour closes out her “9/11 trilogy,” a series of docs that examine the fallout of the War on Terror.
What does it say about our government agencies if a person is deemed suspicious simply because she makes a film that’s sympathetic to the residents of an enemy state? What does it say about us that we are so willing to trade our civil liberties for the tenuous promise of security? How can we trust institutions with unrestricted access to our information? What effect does living in a world where we’re constantly being watched have on us?
Citizenfour addresses these questions in arresting, often chilling fashion. Near the end of the film, Poitras meets again with Snowden, as he and Greenwald review information provided by a new leaker. They can only communicate via written notes for fear of bugging, and most of their writings are not shown to the camera. One of the few notes we do see bears the number of people on an NSA watchlist: more than one million. It’s both a terrifying grace note and a call to action.