I have said it before and I will say it again (because it cannot, in my opinion, be said too often): Investigative journalists are the prophets of our time and we can never have too many films that promote what they do. Citizenfour, the third such film I have watched in recent weeks (Kill the Messenger, Rosewater), is dedicated to those who make great sacrifices to expose injustice. That includes all the whistleblowers out there, people like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden who take such incredible risks, and pay the price, to expose the criminal abuses of power.
Citizenfour is a documentary that follows Snowden’s story live from the beginning, putting us in his Hong Kong hotel room, along with Glenn Greenwald from The Guardian and Laura Poitras, the filmmaker, as he plans and executes the release of his vital information. It’s an amazing thing to watch a great historical event unfold live in front of your eyes, especially if it feels like a film in the paranoid thriller genre (one of my favourite genres). Of course, one does know how the event unfolds and so the suspense is somewhat muted. But it’s still a marvel to see.
Edward Snowden was a systems analyst for the NSA (National Security Agency) who exposed the truth about how the NSA (and others) were monitoring the communications and computer usage of average citizens through agreements with service providers.
While I can hardly fault Poitras for focusing on the incredible hotel room footage with Snowden, that focus is, for me, the film’s only real flaw. By spending so much time on Snowden, we miss opportunities to explore the context of the information he is releasing. And when that context becomes part of the film, it feels disjointed, without a clear trajectory. Just like the recent ‘news’ about CIA torture tactics, Snowden’s ‘news’ wasn’t news to those of us who are cynical about the abuses of American intelligence agencies. (Oops, I’m gonna get flagged again!) But to provide proof of these abuses and make that proof public for the world to see is absolutely vital for the future of humanity. It would have been good for Citizenfour to spend more time examining the implications of Snowden’s revelations for our societies and for life in 2014 rather than just focus on live footage. It’s quite clear where Poitras’s sympathies lie, but she doesn’t seem willing to condemn the powers-that-be in the way they deserve to be condemned.
Nevertheless, Citizenfour is a well-crafted film that encourages whistleblowers to come forward and expose the truth of what is really going on. We need far more whistleblowers to come forward, so this is a vital film. Despite its flaw, I really want to give Citizenfour ****, but how can I keep giving away **** ratings in this crazy year (one of my four-star reviews isn’t even on the blog, at least not yet)? Sigh. While I consider this, I can assure you that my mug is up.