October 29, 2015
Citizenfour – US, 2014
Citizenfour is a curiosity. It’s a film that I wanted to be enlightened by, for there is much about the NSA that even the most frequent watcher of CNN may not fully understand. I was also hopeful that I would come away with a new, more complete understanding of Edward Snowden, who has been both vilified as a traitor and praised as a hero. I do not believe that this is too much to ask of a documentary, for what is the purpose of doing a documentary if not to educate and enable viewers to come away with new perspectives on important issues and events? In fact, judging from the film’s near universal praise and all of the awards bestowed upon it, many people undoubtedly feel it succeeded. I respectfully disagree.
Citizenfour may be one of the coldest documentaries I have seen in some time, and that is certainly not the filmmaker’s intent. Over the course of the film, we see examples of true journalistic courage, hear heartfelt speeches about the importance of law and order and the dangers of government overreach, and hear about events that if true are certainly shocking. Yet herein lies one of my major difficulties with the film. Very little that is asserted in it is actually verified. The government, it is said, is watching Snowden’s family, questioning his girlfriend, and using every means at their disposal to locate him, yet we see none of this; we are just asked to take people’s word for it. While what they say may be absolutely correct, when a film takes allegations at face value, it does its subject and its audience a disservice.
The reason for this may be that director Laura Poitras was too close to her subject. She was also a very active part of the film, for even though she rarely speaks on camera, we’re always aware that she is there. At one point, she even lets Snowden use her room when he becomes concerned about his safety. In other scenes, we see some of her correspondences with Snowden, and never once does she ask the kind of question that an investigative documentarian would.
And so, Snowden never responds to any of the allegations that are eventually made about him. We never hear his reasons for suddenly wanting asylum after having said so much previously about accepting responsibility for his actions, and he never addresses the apparent contradictions in his pursuit of an NSA-free world and his acceptance of asylum from Russia, a country that is hardly a beacon of free speech or internet freedom. Instead, what we see is a standard blow-by-blow account of the days leading up to and including the release of those initial news articles that both shocked the world and confirmed much of its collective paranoia. Audience members who are looking for that kind of film likely won’t be disappointed. The film also details the aftermath of the articles, including the reaction of other countries, yet if you watched the news at that time, you likely already know the things exposed in it.
There’s more to Citizenfour than Edward Snowden, of course. Throughout the film, we see unresolved court cases involving allegations of government spying; snippets from hearings in Brazil in which politicians and businesspeople grandstand by flinging tried-and-true assertions as to the importance of government oversight; and a lot of footage from CNN, not its more conservative competitor. There are also several points in the film when we see government facilities that are said to be where the NSA and its many spying programs operate. The film even documents the moment when reporter Glenn Greenwald arrived to pick up his partner after nine hours of questioning by officials. The scene is indeed emotional, yet it ends without any inquiry whatsoever. I wanted to hear what had happened, or at the very least to hear Poitras ask him what happened. Alas, the scene simply ends. Another chance for introspection lost forever. Unfortunately, this is a pattern that is never broken, and in all honesty, the film’s subject deserves better.
There are documentary subjects for which the best approach a director can take is just to sit back and observe. This approach worked well for films such as Daughter from Danang and Last Train Home. However, it does not serve Citizenfour very well. As I reflected on the film, I couldn’t help recalling R.J. Cutler and David Van Taylor’s The Perfect Candidate, the 1996 documentary about Oliver North’s failed bid to become senator of Virginia. The directors remain silent for much of the film, yet there’s a moment when one of them has heard enough and forcefully confronts Mr. North about the way he misrepresents his testimony to Congress at a rally. Now I’m not saying that Oliver North is in the same category as Edward Snowden, but I simply can’t believe that there wasn’t a single moment when Poitras didn’t have something important she wanted to ask him. I know I did.
Interestingly, throughout the film, we hear little from the government’s side, and while the pessimist in us may say that we already know its answers, that doesn’t mean a documentarian shouldn’t ask the questions. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
2 and a half stars