Hours of explanation regarding how the National Security Administration spies on Americans with the collaboration of European allies. Nervous eye flickers as the Hong Kong hotel in which he’s hiding holds a fire drill. He has to plug the room phone he’d turned off (these new phones can record conversations) and call the front desk. Finally, ready to inspect Guardian columnist and reporter Glenn Greenwald’s laptop, he throws what looks like a red curtain from his grandmother’s parlor in 1976 over his head. Someone might be spying on him at that moment. From — where? The room titters with laughter.
At that moment the NSA contractor whose crisp jargon-free English betrays traces of his North Carolinian birth, becomes likable. Not that it matters. One of director Laura Poitras’ decisions when assembling Citizenfour was to exclude biographical montages, interviews with friends, relatives, and former lovers, accompanied by music — the cliches of documentary filmmaking. This isn’t Flag Wars or The Oath, Poitras’ best known previous films. The first thing out of Snowden’s mouth when Greenwald sits across from him is an insistence on depersonalizing the stories that The Guardian and the Washington Post will publish. Greenwald, a victim himself of smear campaigns and dismissals because he doesn’t hang out with Luke Russert at Peggy Noonan’s for Sunday brunch, practically claps. What the audience sees is an articulate twenty-nine-year old in a black tee on a bed explaining the extent to which a largely unaccountable state apparatus accumulates, with a bipartisan imprimatur, credit, banking, and electronic information from Americans. No NSA, State Department, or administration apparatchiks get interviewed for the sake of a phony balance. Snowden and Greenwald in a modern Hong Kong hotel, oitras invisible behind her camera, accompanied sometimes by Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill are all the film shows for a forty or fifty-minute stretch. There is never any question about Snowden revealing himself — how long he can evade detection without his story subordinating the purloined data shapes the drama. The only moment when Citizenfour succumbs to spy novel bait happens when Snowden and a human rights lawyer try to figure out how to slip him into a United Nations facility where he can claim asylum. Replacing glasses with contacts, fussing over how much mousse he spreads into his hair, smoothing his shirt, he’s like a star readying for a E! interview, albeit with a bullseye drawn on his back.
Separating my responses to what Snowden leaked from a full accounting of Poitras’ film is hopeless. Citizenfour is a political document. Readers of this blog know them. Click on the tags. It would be agitprop if Poitras belonged to a cause, but I hesitate to call an informed citizenry taking advantage of its constitutional liberties a cause. I wish she had drawn a line between Snowden’s revelations and Wikileaks. Using the fear of terrorism as an excuse to keep the United States as financial and military hegemon is the least surprising fact to emerge from Citizenfour,