The World’s Stage
by Jeff Reichert

Dir. Laura Poitras, U.S., Radius-TWC

“Perhaps my old age and fearfulness deceive me, but I suspect that the human species—the unique species—is about to be extinguished, but the Library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.” —Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel”

“Like every metaphor, this metaphor suggests something, makes some thing visible. What?”—Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”

It’s been just over a year since Edward Snowden first fled his home in Hawaii for Hong Kong with thousands of classified documents culled from his time spent working as a government defense contractor in tow. Think about that for a moment, and then try to remember the last time you’ve self-policed an online communication, decided to make a cash purchase in a brick and mortar store instead of on the internet, or shut off your EZ Pass and paid a toll in coin. Even in the face of the hyperventilating punditry and outrage from certain sectors of the political class, Snowden’s revelation that our government had been actively and illegally collecting data on nearly all of its citizens carried with it the whiff of the obvious. In a way, didn’t we all sign up for membership in the surveillance state? In our collective rush to turn our consumption and communications digital didn’t we know this was on the horizon? Perhaps we deserve to be surveilled, because, for the sake of mere convenience, we willingly participate in the systems that make big data possible. Maybe we even subconsciously desire it a little bit. Might there be something titillating in the idea that in this rapidly expanding, ever more anonymous world, somebody, somewhere out there might be listening? That what we do might be perceived by someone as significant?

One wonders to what degree this sense—of mattering, of being significant—factored into 29-year-old Snowden’s decision to disclose information about the boundless limits of our government’s surveillance activities to filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald, whom he invited to Hong Kong for the purpose of helping him structure and disseminate his revelations to the global public. The first images the world saw of Snowden were captured by Poitras’s camera, and now he’s the subject of her feature-length documentary CITIZENFOUR, the final film in her 9/11 trilogy following My Country, My Country and The Oath, in which he eloquently and forcefully discusses such topics as overreaches of state power, the destruction of privacy, how free the internet used to be, and the right of individuals to exist in a non-tyrannical state. In this, he’s terribly convincing, often even galvanizing. Even so, self-selecting for permanent exile and potential lengthy imprisonment just to uphold an abstract ideal seems somewhat unlikely for this character when we first encounter him. He’s the full embodiment of white male tech geek chic—shirts slightly too big for his thin physique, wire-framed glasses well past hip, spiky hair, pasty skin, patchy stubble that could never form a legitimate beard. In some quarters, he’s now a hero.

CITIZENFOUR opens with Poitras’s voice reading communications sent to her from the titular anonymous source, who assures that the information he promises to divulge will be “worth her time.” Throughout the film, Poitras reads Snowden’s emails aloud, but she speaks to us only via elegant white text on a black screen, keeping us apprised of her activities and location, her multiple detainments when crossing back into the U.S. in recent years, her initial intention to make a film about surveillance and how the correspondences with Citizenfour changed everything. She uses “I” freely (this is important to note, as at a similar juncture in her 2010 film The Oath, when she was given the chance to view a sensitive video, she refers to herself in text only as “the filmmaker”)—she’s as much a part of the story as Snowden. It gives the film’s opening sections the disembodied yet intensely personal feel of a Chris Marker meditation. But CITIZENFOUR changes, drastically, when the action moves to Hong Kong.

It takes Poitras some time to get there, though. First, we meet Bill Binney, an NSA whistleblower who has been warning about governmental surveillance overreaches since 2001. We see an Occupy meeting during which nearly all the attendees acknowledge, via a show of hands, that they have felt under government surveillance at one time or another. We see antiseptically beautiful shots of alien data farms planted in the middle of desert landscapes. This is all anticipation building. Poitras is too canny a filmmaker to just hand over the most valuable part of CITIZENFOUR like some cheap huckster. Even so, Snowden’s perhaps an even more consummate showman than Poitras. He suggests she bring Glenn Greenwald. “I think you know him,” he writes. He tells Laura that he wants, for the sake of his family, to be filmed, for her to “put the target on his back” and “nail him to the cross.” (Ed as Jesus, Poitras and Greenwald as Peter and Paul?) By the time you actually see him in the film, you’ve wanted to see him so bad you almost can’t stand it. Snowden pulled the same trick on the whole world.

And then there he is. Greenwald and Poitras spent eight days in a Hong Kong hotel room with Snowden, and the footage from that period is the film’s centerpiece. Her selections from that material elevate CITIZENFOUR well past the level of most contemporary nonfiction filmmaking. Poitras allows Snowden to provides all of the relevant information about his history and his actions that we crave (the whos, whats, whens, and whys), but she also makes space to flesh out his character, weaving tossed off moments most filmmakers wouldn’t even think to include throughout. Thus, we see “Ed” answering the phone after ordering room service and talking to the front desk; freaking out in the wake of a sudden fire alarm; stuffing his mouth with blueberry muffin; giving Greenwald a “pro tip” about not leaving SD cards with sensitive files in his laptop overnight. The film’s best shot is here: Snowden in a loose hotel robe perched at his laptop, Selena Gomez music playing on the TV. You’ll wonder: This nerd made such a ruckus? Before he leaves the hotel for parts unknown, he pauses and looks around the room. An off-screen Poitras asks one of the most common of documentary film questions, now loaded with international import: “How are you feeling?” His convictions never seem more unimpeachable than in his answer. Perhaps not since Salesman has a cramped hotel room with an unmade bed seemed so expansive a space for potent drama.

After carefully humanizing Snowden, Poitras turns him back into an image, with a shot of the same interview Poitras just filmed being played on a massive jumbotron above a busy Hong Kong thoroughfare. So many documentaries, no matter how closely they’re released to the events they document, arrive at theaters seemingly cast in amber, yet Poitras’s films are always imbued with the urgency of “now.” My Country, My Country charts the lead-up to the first free elections in Iraq in 2005, and most of the action in The Oath take place not long after, but both remain vital years later, thanks to Poitras’s filmmaking choices. Her interest lies in making cinema as opposed to packaging and presenting information; she treats her “characters” (common documentary speak for “people”) as rich and multivalent; her clean aesthetic is made up classical elements—-establishing shots, shot/reverse shots, and close-ups; and she’s always looking to create ideas through editing. Her smarts lead her to de-emphasize context and trust that her audience might be as smart as she is, able to read the room in the same way she did when there with a camera. The intellectual questions in nonfiction of late have swirled around hybridity and exploding forms, but hopefully in the wake of CITIZENFOUR we’ll be refocused on the basics of filmmaking: Poitras has crafted a real-life thriller more energetic than Kathryn Bigelow’s infinitely higher budgeted Zero Dark Thirty.

CITIZENFOUR falters somewhat after Snowden leaves his isolation in Hong Kong. It rockets from Brazil to Germany to the U.K. and back, tracing the ripples of his actions outward: Greenwald’s partner is delayed and interrogated at Heathrow for nine hours, in a blatant act of retaliation; Binney continues his quixotic quest to raise awareness about the erosion of our privacy; Jeremy Scahill, the haunted journalist hero of Dirty Wars, pops in to further Greenwald’s work; editors at the Guardian are forced to destroy—literally, with hammers and drills—drives containing data about Britain’s spying programs, which trump those of the U.S. in their invasiveness. This outwards move is not unexpected, but it doesn’t carry the same charge as those focused Hong Kong sequences. Throughout, Snowden remains in contact with Poitras, but both acknowledge the danger in this. Each time we return to text onscreen depicting their online conversations, we want to be back with him, just so we can find out what he is doing. Ed eventually lands somewhere in Moscow. We see him first from outside the home where he’s staying, cooking dinner with his partner, who left the U.S. to join him. Something in the composition recalls the wooded idylls of Tarkovsky’s The Mirror or the opening of Solaris. The glimpse into Snowden’s life also brought to mind the work of another Russian filmmaker: Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Sun, in which we see a powerful agent of history pulled down to the level of the mundane.

The climax that follows is pure farce. A reunited Greenwald and Snowden discuss the emergence of a new source, but their conversation needs to be coded. So, Greenwald begins a sentence, then hastily scrawls its conclusion on paper, and passes each scrap to Snowden, whose reaction shots and verbal exclamations are outsized and hilarious. What’s revealed? That Germany has served as home base for most of our drone missions, even though it has strenuously denied doing so, and that the President of the United States personally approves each strike. That the U.S.’s watch list currently extends to nearly 1.2 million people. Witness the triumph of the analog over the digital: the massive informational archives out there can’t collect and store and catalogue notes written on a legal pad. We know these things because Poitras’s camera craftily captures snatches of Greenwald’s written text. If the scene feels fly-on-the-wall, recognize that there’s some stagecraft at work—it’s doubtfully a coincidence that after Greenwald tears the papers and piles them to be destroyed, Poitras’s camera is allowed to linger on a single torn piece, right-side up that says “POTUS.”

CITIZENFOUR believes so strongly in the essential rightness of Snowden’s actions that it does feel a less densely layered experience than My Country, My Country or The Oath. This seems worth mentioning not because the film would ever stoop to the false equivalences that underline so many of our current political debates (see how the handful of energy-company-funded climate change deniers are trotted out as “balance” to the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the opposing position), but because Poitras’s previous two features reveled so fully in their contradictions. Thus there’s little in CITIZENFOUR comparable to Dr. Riyadh from My Country struggling mightily over whether or not to participate in his beloved Iraq’s first national elections, or the ways in which The Oath’s jihadist protagonist Abu Jandal queasily compels and repels by turns. If there’s a living filmmaker engaged in political cinema who could cut through the conventional arguments against the actions of Snowden and other whistleblowers (the blanket, never provable threat of endangering lives via exposing state secrets) to arrive at a more uneasy truth, surely it would have been Poitras.

But CITIZENFOUR, though the finale of a trilogy, is a different film, for a different, perhaps more urgent moment, one which finds the metaphors of Jorge Luis Borges colliding with the philosophies of Louis Althusser, where an infinite catalogue of our activities is not a fantasy, but a ready tool for the maintenance of repressive state control. This is arguably a more dire threat to our liberties than war in the Middle East or Al Qaeda, yet all are inextricably linked. At its close, CITIZENFOUR cuts to black, and instead of title cards instructing us what website to go to and what actions to take, Poitras gives us, unexpectedly, credits. (As in My Country, My Country and The Oath, her subjects are listed onscreen first, afforded the same respect given to actors in narrative films.) A film unto itself, as opposed to one made in service of a campaign, CITIZENFOUR doesn’t ask us to do anything, but its implications are clear. The ultimate value of Snowden’s decisions, and Poitras’s in documenting of them, lies not in revealing a massive spying program that most of us already likely assumed, but in the depiction of how a huge revelation can be successfully accomplished and stage-managed. CITIZENFOUR isn’t a film about an immense, government-damaging leak. It’s a how-to manual for carrying them out in the future, hopefully again and again and again. It will take more than just one to actually shake the foundations of the surveillance machine, so hackers, disgruntled contractors, dissidents take note: here is the film for you. And to all those within the government who began watching my computer as soon as I typed CITIZENFOUR: howdy, folks! You know where to find me if you need anything.