It is at times tough to reconcile Edward Snowden, the face of 21st century whistleblowers, the face of surveillance overreach, the face of justice to some, the face of treason to others, with the man in a plain white T-shirt, black jeans, a sensible haircut and a pair of glasses with an aggressive prescription. He speaks calmly but forcefully, even keeled and never panicking, with a wealth and depth of knowledge of the technical aspects of the NSA spying programs that will soon be imposed on the national conversation. He is no paranoid schizophrenic, no unhinged flame spitting ideologue. He is just a man sitting in a Hong Kong hotel room across from journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, watched and recorded by the camera of documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. He is about to go public with his stolen documents through the cipher of Greenwald’s reporting, and the camera is there to capture it all.
The central hour of Citizenfour, Poitras’ documentary about Snowden as he transitions from NSA systems administrator to infamous whistleblower, presents these meetings as they happen, as Poitras and Greenwald meet Snowden in person for the first time after months of encrypted communication, and follows along as he unfurls the story of what is really going on within the highest levels of US government surveillance. Despite being thoroughly real, so much of the mechanics of the film seem to come straight out of a 1970’s paranoid espionage thriller with updated technology. Code names and phrases are used to protect identities (full on “The eagle flies at midnight” stuff) Snowden warns Greenwald and Poitras of the dangers of phones with computer chips in them, of leaving SD cards in laptops for prolonged periods of time, of being anywhere near something electronic that can connect to the internet. He knows that heightened encryption may only buy them a day before his identity as the leaker is confirmed. He looks out windows furtively, unsure of where his life is going to go next. He believes in his cause, well and truly, but is just as concerned with the wellbeing of his friends and family, of innocent agents, of the journalists helping him uncover the truth. He is the type of man who, on a fateful day of travel that will find him stranded in Russia, living there to this day, he is thoroughly concerned with how his hair looks.
Just these moments, this wonder of seeing such an important moment in history as it happens, would be enough. But Poitras has the eye of a filmmaker, and she is insistent on telling their story with style. Her camera is inquisitive and active, her editing precise. She brings out the humanity of Snowden and Greenwald and ancillary subjects like William Binney, himself a whistleblower, who offers context before and after the series of interviews that represents the spine of the film. Regardless of the quality of the filming, they have more than enough footage to engage, and it is a good thing that Poitras does not rest on her laurels with the treasure trove she has.
Indeed, Snowden is so mesmerizing to watch, so effortlessly charismatic and assured, that the film suffers a bit once he departs for Russia. The build to the interview is exciting, with its cryptic emails and the sense that neither Poitras nor Greenwald fully grasped the scope of their undertaking, but once the audience has spent some time in Snowden’s presence, he leaves a vacuum once he departs. There are still interesting bits to be covered, from Greenwald’s partner David Miranda’s detainment at Heathrow airport to the involvement of Julian Assange and Wikileaks’ attempts to find him political asylum to the controversy of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s status as a spy target, but the film does feel like it is beginning to lag without the physical presence of its subject. It is almost a sense of separation anxiety, knowing this man is barred from travel for fear that he would be extradited.
In many ways, both Poitras and Greenwald are incredibly lucky. Of course, being the journalistic architects of one of the biggest whistleblower stories of recent memories should be more than enough, but the fact that Snowden, this slight man in his white shirt and black jeans, is such an engaging and gregarious presence makes their jobs incredibly easy. His portrayal is a positive one, but it stops short of hagiography as Poitras takes the time to demystify him. He is no Deep Throat, operating in the shadows and waiting thirty years to reveal himself. He is not concerned with story or perception; he simply wants the world to know about what he considers unjust.
Near the end of the film, after some time without Snowden on the screen as Poitras and Greenwald navigate the aftermath of their story, Citizenfour cuts to a house somewhere in Russia, the camera positioned outside the kitchen window. Edward Snowden is inside this house, alongside his girlfriend who has made the move to Russia to be with him, cooking dinner. There is some pasta boiling in a pot and sauce warming on another burner. It is a calming moment and an undeniably human one, perfect for a man who has been so unflinchingly human throughout his ordeal, always aware of his risks, dutifully working to minimize the risk of others who helped him. Citizenfour is a portrait of a man just as much as it is a portrait of his actions. It did not need to be, but it is. For that reason, among many others, it is remarkable.