Edward Snowden and the Justice League: A review of Citizenfour

By Eileen Jones , written on November 2, 2014

From The News Desk

We’re living in strange times, and we have the films to prove it. Today’s exhibit: Citizenfour, a movie about…well, I don’t know what. I’m baffled.

Citizenfour seems to present itself as a documentary that’s been awkwardly welded to a political thriller “starring” Edward Snowden as himself—a pale, nerdy political martyr urging film director and journalist Laura Poitras to spare others by “nailing me to the cross” and revealing to the public his leaked documentation of the NSA massive domestic and international surveillance programs. It co-stars Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill as, respectively, the obnoxious career-obsessed newshound who manipulates the naïve Snowden for his own purposes, and the old mensch journalist who tries to inject a note of common sense into the bizarre proceedings. The female lead is played by Poitras herself, a shadowy narrator figure behind the camera who shares an intense communion with Snowden and whose point of view defines Snowden for us. In a supporting role, William Binney, by far the most likable character, plays the tough old codger who’s already paid a heavy price for being an NSA whistleblower and is refreshingly practical and unself-pitying.

But it ends up turning into a ponderous thriller indeed, mostly filmed in a hotel room in Hong Kong, where Poitras was holed up with Snowden for eight days. There she records extended interviews in which he tells her, Greenwald, and MacAskill his story, discusses the journalists’ rollout of his NSA documents, frets, stares out the window, and awaits discovery.

It’s a strange interlude in that hotel room. It’s speciously informative as we hear Snowden tell the journalists who he is and, broadly, what he’s handing over to them, as well as conveying his own sense of himself as a man with a mission, sacrificing himself for a highly moral cause. Only the details of how Snowden went about leaking the information are new to anyone who’s been halfway paying attention, as many critics have observed. The film contains no major revelations about NSA and other government surveillance programs that haven’t already been widely reported.

But you can’t help asking a lot of awkward questions about “character motivation” while you’re stuck in that hotel room with Poitras and Snowden. For example, what possessed Snowden to allow this whole super-secret process to be filmed in the first place? Snowden is so worried about being “viewed” that he drapes a towel over his head and his laptop while typing a message, lest there be a hidden camera planted behind him in the headboard of his bed. Didn’t he worry about being “viewed” as the hero of a film?

And despite all the time we spend in that hotel room, watching Snowden, we never find out what triggered the key plot-turn of this thriller: Snowden’s decision to flee, rather than offer himself up to the authorities after he’s handed over the documents to Greenwald and Poitras, as originally planned. Did Greenwald persuade him to take a new course of action, at some point that remains off-screen? We certainly see Greenwald urge Snowden not to “do their work for them” by identifying himself to as the leaker and surrendering. But Snowden seems set on his “locked plan.” Greenwald then agrees with Snowden that, by surrendering, Snowden would send the message that “I’m not hiding for one second!”

No one in the room seems to see the humor of that message, coming from a man who’s sequestered himself in a hotel room for days, and who turns ashen and round-eyed at the sound of a hotel fire alarm test which might be a ruse designed to force him out of hiding.

At some undefined point in that room, Snowden decided to escape the authorities instead, and preparations are made to get him out of there and onto a plane bound, as the world now knows, for Russia. Mighty incompetent plans they are, too. Even as reporters are besieging the hotel, hot on Snowden’s trail, a human rights lawyer facilitating his escape says that Snowden could just walk out the door and take a taxi to the airport. Only problem is, taxis are hard to snag in crowded Hong Kong. Soooo, maybe hire a car?

You fucking amateurs, I fumed in the audience. Lucky for you the press corps lurking around hoping for a photo of Snowden was composed entirely of morons, apparently, because you managed to get away unseen somehow.

You’ve got a lot of time during this sequence to think thoughts like these. There’s not much else to do, unless you’re riveted by Snowden’s expressionless features for minutes at a time. Frankly, this section of the film seems designed to facilitate silent, worshipful staring at Snowden. Those interested in hagiography can spend the time wondering, “What is this divinity thinking at this moment of crisis, his personal Gethsemane?”

Only, confusingly, by that point Snowden’s not going to his crucifixion, he’s going to the airport. Whoever edited this hodgepodge of a film seems not to have allowed for the change of plan, because the through-line of Snowden’s intended self-sacrifice at the hands of the authorities is maintained in the film’s “story” and overall tone, while his change of plan is effaced. The focus remains on Snowden’s solemn preparations to leave the hotel room at last, looking waxy-pale and tremulously resolute, changing his appearance by combing his hair back, removing the glasses, and donning all-black clothes. The clothing-change has a big, doom-laden impact, because, as George Packer argues in his extensive New Yorker article on the making of Citizenfour, we’d been looking at white-on-white up to that point:

In shots of him sitting on his unmade bed—white sheets and covers, white headboard, white bathrobe, white skin—Snowden seems like a figure in some obscure ritual, being readied for sacrifice.
This brooding on Snowden in silence was part of Poitras’ filmmaking strategy, it seems. Supposedly due to her initial commitment to certain principles of cinema verite/direct cinema, she opted not to ask Snowden any probing questions, sticking mainly to the “fly on the wall” observational style. Though we catch a glimpse of Poitras in the mirror at one point, and hear her voice faintly when interacting with Snowden a few times—telling him how to better position himself for the camera, and consulted by him about whether or not he should shave his facial hair—she is silent and unseen throughout most of the sequence.

The hotel room footage is the source of most of the film’s fascination, as Godfrey Cheshire of the Roger Ebert film site raves:

Indeed, no film has ever been historic in quite the way this one is, since it tells a story in which the filmmaker and her work play a crucial part. It’s as if Daniel Ellsberg had a friend with a movie camera who filmed his disclosure of the Pentagon Papers every step of the way. Or if the Watergate burglars had taken along a filmmaker who shot their crimes and the cover-up that followed. Except that the issues “Citizenfour” deals with are, arguably, a thousand times more potent than Vietnam or Watergate.
That’s quite a “historic” claim, “…a thousand times more potent than Vietnam….” What do you get if you multiply Vietnam by a thousand—the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs?

And why, if your footage is so historic and extraordinary, and reflects a commitment to cinema verite, why would you doll it up with a standard genre film aesthetic?

Judging by its cinematography and soundtrack choices, Citizenfour seems to want most to be a film noir-inflected political thriller, complete with brooding long shots of stark cityscapes, sleek Lynchian traveling shots within dark urban tunnels lit only by intermittent slashes of overhead light, black screen shots with close-ups of cryptic communications appearing in white typeface tapped out onto computers, eerie thrumming electronic music, and slick editing by Mathilde Bonnefoy, who presumably got practice at this kind of thing while cutting Tom Tykwer’s 2009 political thriller The International starring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts.

This is a long way from Poitras’s claimed commitment to cinema verite.

Even critics determined to be fans of the film have wrestled with its schizoid quality. As A.O. Scott of the New York Times points out,

There are two ways to look at “Citizenfour”… The first and most obvious is as a piece of advocacy journalism, a goad to further argument about how security and transparency should be balanced in a democracy, and about how governments abuse technology, about how official secrets are kept and exposed. The second is as a movie, an elegant and intelligent contribution the flourishing genre of dystopian allegory.
This description is a bit confusing. After all, a documentary that’s a “piece of advocacy journalism” is also “a movie,” isn’t it? And if Citizenfour is an allegory, dystopian or otherwise, it’s an allegory of what, exactly?

Ultimately, A.O. Scott leans toward regarding Citizenfour as a terrific genre movie of some sort or other:

It’s a tense and frightening thriller that blends the brisk globe-trotting of the “Bourne” movies with the spooky, atmospheric effects of a Japanese horror film. And it is also a primal political fable for the digital age, a real-time tableau of the confrontation between the individual and the state.
Got all that? It’s a piece of advocacy journalism, a dystopian allegory, a thriller, a horror film, and a political fable.

I can put it more succinctly: for all the film’s superficial slickness, it’s a mess.

After the hotel room sequence, the awkward jumble of scenes that follow seem to be remnants from another aspect of Poitras’ earlier plans for the film, revealed in a Time magazine interview:

…[T]here are a lot of really talented national security reporters who can do great work on documents in the public interest. Doing this was what I wanted to do—making a longform film that looked at the story from many angles—asking what it says about journalism, whistleblowers, and the government coming down on both in the context of post-9/11 America….
But she changed course in post-production:
In the editing room, we realized a couple of things quickly. One was that I was part of the story and it needed to be told from a subjective point of view. I was the narrator. I was a participant as much as a documentarian. Then we tell a close story of the protagonists, Snowden, Glenn, [U.S. intelligence official-turned-whistleblower] William Binney…It’s a broader human story. Yes, it’s about the NSA, but it’s also about what would cause a person to risk everything.
As I was reading this interview, trying to get some sort of grip on Citizenfour, I got a dreadful sense of déjà vu and remembered I had read similar interviews about the making of the film Dirty Wars back in 2013.

Dirty Wars deals with Jeremy Scahill’s extensive reporting on the covert military operations involved in America’s “war on terror.” Like Citizenfour, it was initially conceived as documentary. Then at some point it morphed into a different type of film altogether, one with a streamlined and simplified “story” resembling conspiracy thriller genre movies, featuring Scahill himself as a protagonist whose traumatic personal experience is foregrounded.

I went back to my old review of Dirty Wars just to make sure I was remembering right:

The film’s creative team, including Scahill himself, director-cinematographer Richard Rowley, and co-writer David Riker (who normally writes fiction scripts), got a bright idea about how to approach “Dirty Wars” when it came to film style. They wanted to maximize attendance, so they took the most direct route toward their goal by imitating popular Hollywood blockbuster strategies.
And here we go again with Citizenfour, designed to be “a political thriller in three acts,” according to George Packer. Here’s the focus on the heroic “protagonist,” Snowden—just as in Dirty Wars with its focus on Jeremy Scahill’s starring role as a brave but suffering expert on America’s covert ops—featuring an ensemble cast of heroes around him, a kind of Justice League including Greenwald, Poitras, and Binney.

Snowden and Poitras’ e-mail exchanges, which from the beginning of the film we see typed out over black screen and hear intoned by Poitras in voice-over, have a distracting quality of self-dramatization from the get-go. As Packer notes,

From the beginning, the language of their correspondence was heightened. Snowden wrote to Poitras, “You asked why I chose you. I didn’t. You chose yourself.”
After that bit of dialogue, if you’ve seen The Matrix, you might expect Snowden to instruct Poitras to answer the mysterious knock on the door, “follow the white rabbit,” meet Trinity and Morpheus, and take either the red pill or the blue pill.

There seems to have been some pushback from Snowden against starring in this thriller about himself. At a certain point in Citizenfour, as Greenwald is actively planning how to present the Snowden story to the world, Snowden says on camera, “I don’t want to be the story.”

This seems odd when watching the film, because after all, we’re sitting in theaters drinking in Snowden’s every blink, twitch, and wan smile, because he took a filmmaker with him on the lam.

But there’s backstory on that oddity, too. According to Poitras, Snowden also told her he didn’t want to be the story when he first contacted her, but she overruled him, saying, “Like it or not, you’re going to be the story, so you might as well get your voice in.”

Presuming that Poitras means, “like it or not, the media and the general public are going to make you the story” (instead of, “like it or not, I’m going to make you the story, so get ready for your close-up, you little bastard”), does it necessarily follow that there was no way to offer up any resistance to this inevitability? Instead of focusing on Snowden’s personal story even more, putting “Snowden, the Man” on prolonged display before the movie-going public, wouldn’t it have been possible to resolutely return, no matter what the pressure, to the contents of the documents, the dissemination of the documents, the government’s accountability for what’s contained in the documents, the public action that should be taken based on the documents?

Why do we keep coming back to the world of hero-construction and fictional narrative styles?

Is the cinematic hero-worship of Snowden in Citizenfour likely to persuade anyone of anything about the serious issues at stake? I doubt it. These limited release documentaries that play in art-house theaters in major city centers are playing to a certain type of crowd. Just looking around the theater, you can see the demographics: highly educated urbanites age 30s and up, skewing left politically. No doubt many of them are already following the ever-expanding government surveillance news bulletins like bloodhounds, and they’re probably Snowden fans. Which is not to suggest that preaching to the choir is an unusual rhetorical strategy.

The film ends with an absurd scene in different hotel room, this time in Russia. Greenwald and Snowden seem to have learned directly from something William Binney said in the preceding scene--that the way for journalists to protect sources wanting to leak classified documents is to pull a “Deep Throat”: avoid all technological means of communication by talking in person at a secret location. (“Find an underground garage.”) So Snowden and Greenwald are scribbling notes to each other, in case the room is bugged.

But the camera’s still on them, of course, and presumably Poitras stands behind it.

The camera shows us close-ups of some of the notes Greenwald and Snowden are scrawling to each other, then coyly disguises others, which are displayed already crumpled or half-blurred. So we’re only getting glimpses of possibly inflammatory new stories yet to come. We can see a note with a series of boxes and arrows running up to the box at the top, marked “POTUS,” while cryptic comments by Greenwald indicate that drone strike orders come right out of the Oval Office. And another note has a number, 1.2 million, indicating how many people are now on “watch lists.”

Snowden’s responses to these revelations are huge, given the narrow range of expressions we saw in the earlier hotel sequence. Eyebrows shooting up, stopping in his tracks to stare pop-eyed at Greenwald as if something of tremendous significance had passed between them.

“This could raise the profile of this whole political situation with whistleblowing to a whole new level,” he exclaims.

Again, I got the familiar baffled feeling. Surely we knew Obama signed off on drone strikes? Wouldn’t it be a bigger story if drone strikes were happening that he didn’t authorize? And given the scope of the NSA surveillance program we’ve been hearing about all along, weren’t we meant to assume that huge watch lists were being compiled?

But of course, there are other notes, presumably the really big-deal ones, that we don’t see.

So why is this scene shot this way, revealing and disguising in equal measure, clearly attempting to ratchet up excitement in a “sneak preview” fashion? What are Poitras, Greenwald, and Snowden “previewing” here?

Oh, right. All the rest of the documents Snowden gave Greenwald and Poitras, along with any other whistleblower documents they get exclusive control over, that will be rolling out in a thousand separate headlines over many years in their online publication The Intercept.

And maybe those new revelations can be celebrated a sequel to Citizenfour! Maybe there’ll also be a sequel to Dirty Wars—because, after all, Jeremy Scahill’s also on board at The Intercept. And as more sequels emerge and create a winning franchise, they’ll start to trade and combine heroic characters and have new adventures together, which will all be written about in The Intercept—I’m thinking synergy here, kind of like the Marvel Comics movies—and at the end of each movie there’ll be a preview of the next movie. I can hardly wait to see what kind of superhero Glen Greenwald turns out to be!