In January 2013, Laura Poitras (recipient of the 2012 MacArthur Genius Fellowship and co-recipient of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service) was several years into making a film about surveillance in the post-9/11 era when she started receiving encrypted e-mails from someone identifying himself as “citizen four,” who was ready to blow the whistle on the massive covert surveillance programs run by the NSA and other intelligence agencies. In June 2013, she and Glenn Greenwald flew to Hong Kong for the first of many meetings with the man who turned out to be Edward Snowden. She brought her camera with her. The film that resulted from this series of tense encounters is absolutely sui generis in the history of cinema: a 100% real-life thriller unfolding minute by minute before our eyes.
As mentioned in the film’s synopsis above, documentarian Laura Poitras was working on one film when a bigger topic dropped in her lap. The leaks from Edward Snowden about America’s national security programs created one of the most potent political firestorms in recent memory, and Poitras filmed those meetings between Snowden and political writer and commentator Glenn Greenwald. Those scenes provide the backbone for Citizenfour, and give both Snowden’s supporters and detractors a glimpse at this enigmatic figure.
To be clear: Citizenfour certainly supports Snowden, and works to show him as a well-intentioned man. The documentary makes sure to emphasize how much power he left to Greenwald and select other writers in what information was released, and how the world would find out about Snowden and his involvement. He’s very charming and unassuming, questioning what needs to happen at times, but largely deferring to those he feels understand the media landscape than him.
The film also works, both before and after Snowden’s appearances, to show the effects of the Patriot Act and measures by American intelligence agencies to collect information on people around the world. These aspects are tied into Snowden’s leaks, of course, but they also establish concerns that existed before his leaks, and how the information affected outrage in the global community.
Thanks in large part to the Snowden footage, the film plays less like a traditional documentary and more like a political thriller, just using real people and live footage. This is most realized following Snowden’s introduction to the world after some of the initial leaks, as people start to inquire about Snowden’s presence in Hong Kong.
While this is more likely to pull in supporters of Snowden than detractors, it’s a film that should be seen by a wide range of audiences, if just to get a broader perspective behind the scenes of this newsworthy story.