‘Citizenfour': The Edward Snowden Documentary is a Must-Watch For Everyone
At times, while watching Laura Poitras’ ‘Citizenfour’ (which premiered Friday night at the New York Film Festival) it feels like fiction. It feels like an almost lazy spy movie that uses clichéd tropes to present a world in which everyone and everything is being watched. But, this isn’t fiction. This is the story of Edward Snowden and it is terrifying in its paranoia.
The other night, the Will Smith movie ‘Enemy of the State’ was on basic cable. I remember when this movie came out, kind of laughing at the technical jargon that Gene Hackman’s Brill Lyle was spitting out at Smith’s Robert Clayton Dean. At the time it almost seemed eye-rollingly funny. Now, in 2014, ‘Enemy of the State,’ of all things, seems grossly ahead of its time.
The Edward Snowden we meet in ‘Citizenfour’ is a very paranoid man. What’s scary is that he knows exactly how paranoid he really should be. At one point, he unplugs his Hong Kong hotel phone, then explains that the NSA has the ability to listen in through them. Soon after, a hotel fire alarm goes off for no reason. Snowden just assumes the NSA is involved and calmly goes back to work. (When entering passwords, Snowden will only do so under a blanket, for fear of being spied on visually.)
Poitras gained what can only be described as remarkable access to Edward Snowden. This isn't a series of interviews with his family or an expose on what Snowden was like in high school -- we are right there with him as the entire world changes. Poitras had been communicating with Snowden before he went public and was present with him the days before journalist Glenn Greenwald published his first in a series of pieces detailing the extent of how far the NSA’s reach actually extends. Poitras -- and 'Citizenfour' -- are there for both the before and after of the Snowden story.
‘Citizenfour’ is less about outrage, we’ve already been through that when these stories published in 2013 – and, yes, there are some new revelations: Snowden’s girlfriend now lives with him in Russia and Greenwald reveals that he’s working with a new government source who seems much high up the food chain than Snowden was – but the strength of ‘Citizenfour’ is more about presenting the first real glimpse into who Edward Snowden actually is as a human being.
I remember when this story broke, Snowden was kind of portrayed (and sometimes dismissed) as a low level employee with average intelligence. We spends some serious time with Snowden during the events of ‘Citizenfour’ and we quickly learn just how intelligent Snowden actually is – he always seems about four steps ahead of the authorities. But what’s striking is how human he seems -- he certainly seems nervous, yet stoic with his decision to be a whistleblower – but he also just seems like a kid. (He’s not a kid, he was 29 at the time, but there is something very innocent about him.) At one point, we even watch as Snowden as he reads Internet comments about himself.
When Snowden has to flee Hong Kong, there’s a tension, that, again, makes this all seem fake in a, “yet another phony baloney dumb spy movie” kind of way in which I had to remind myself that this was actually happening -- but the spector of the boogieman really was lurking around every corner for Edward Snowden. I could not begin to imagine what it must be like to live like that, but, then again, we are living like that.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.