Pretty much every single year without fail, a documentary comes along that just seems to really galvanize the pundits and more or less take over the Best Documentary field. This year, it seems like Citizenfour is shaping up to be that doc. When it premiered at the New York Film Festival as a last minute addition to the lineup, it made huge waves, prompting some to even talk about it as not just the new frontrunner in Best Documentary Feature, but also a legitimate contender for a Best Picture nomination. Now, I wouldn’t nearly go that far, but Citizenfour is certainly a high quality film, one that’s of the moment, urgent, and potentially deeply unsettling. Director Laura Poitras is all in on Edward Snowden as an important and heroic figure, so if that’s troubling to you, this movie is going to be problematic (to say the least), but if you have a soft spot for whistleblowers, this could be the best thing to come your way since The Insider. Personally, I’m caught somewhere in between, so even without politics in the equation, there’s still a lot to like here with this real life thriller of sorts. I may not be as over the moon for Citizenfour as all of my colleagues are, but it’s undoubtedly one of the best documentaries of the year so far. It’s timely, urgent, and full of tension. Especially if you can put your politics aside or particularly agree with the issue, this is a must see. Honestly, it’s probably a must see for everyone.
The doc is set up like a real life thriller, unfolding in such a way that certain moments make it feel also like a real time docudrama. Documentarian Laura Poitras is in the middle of making a film about post 9/11 era surveillance in January of 2013 when she begins receiving emails that will change her life. Already suspicious of being followed by the government, she starts getting encrypted emails from someone within the U.S. government who claims that she and journalist Glenn Greenwald (who is also writing about spying and has been contacted by this person) would be very interested in what he has to say. Identifying himself as initially only as “citizen four,” the person says that they are ready to blow the roof off of the large scale and covert spying programs being run by the NSA and other intelligence agencies within the United States. Following up on the emails and listening to what “citizen four” has to say, she becomes convinced that the source is real and a whistleblower that they need to meet, so in June of 2013, she and Greenwald head to Hong Kong for a meeting. The person they meet turns out to be Edward Snowden and the trip to Hong Kong is just the first of many meetings with him. Poitras films these interactions with Snowden as he blows the whistle and sees his life changed forever, while we also just spend time with him as a human being, not simple the hero/martyr/patriot/traitor that he’s portrayed as in the media. The movie also features some startling new information about the spying programs in this country and has the most up to date footage of Snowden you’ve seen so far as well.
The doc seeks to be more than just an “issue film” and also sets out to be a character study of Edward Snowden as well. By focusing for long stretches on Snowden’s humanity, Citizenfour offers up a person who’s far more than just a whistleblower. Undoubtedly one sided, the film presents him as someone who’s out to do the right thing in his eyes and will accept whatever consequences come his way. Glenn Greenwald is given a bit of a dramatic arc as well, while Laura Poitras keeps herself almost entirely behind the camera. The focus is clearly on Snowden. Large swaths of the doc are either interviews with him or just literally following him around as he paces back and forth in his hotel room, as of that moment undiscovered and wondering what the next day will bring for him. He’s charismatic at times too, which only helps his cause with Greenwald, Poitras, and likely many audience members as well. When the dramatic retelling comes our way in the near future (at the moment set to be directed by Oliver Stone and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden), it’ll be a juicy character, to say the least.
My only issue here is sometimes Poitras’ filmmaking comes close to hero worship with Snowden. A little bit goes a long way when it comes to the time dedicated to just him in Hong Kong. It’s not a huge problem, but it’s what is keeping me from falling totally in love here. I do however love how she sets up the first act, editing things in such a way that you’d full believe you’re caught up in a cinematic spy tale. If the first third of the doc was able to sustain that energy throughout, this would be a four star movie to me. At nearly two hours long, that sort of pacing would have been a boon to Citizenfour. Again, small quibble, but enough to present here.
Overall, Citizenfour is one of the best documentaries of 2014 so far (second only to Life Itself in my eyes) and a surefire Academy Award nominee in the Best Documentary Feature category. Some of the more buzz worthy moments of the doc are best left seen by your own eyes, but this sometimes portrait of Snowden at a big turning point in his life is compelling as well, if a little long winded, as mentioned above. This is basically a must see, no matter your political leanings. Citizenfour is angry and impassioned, but almost always clear eyed in its arguments.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!