Urgent, fascinating, and tastefully designed, Citizenfour is a primal political fable for the digital age, prosaic in its presentation, profound in its details, and perturbing in its implications. Alarming and essential, it’s a tapestry of escalating suspense; a masterful fusion of journalism and art; a rare, remarkably intimate look at a crucial historical event as it happened; a living document of a global scandal straight from the mouth of the whistleblower.
In June 2013, director Laura Poitras (My Country, My Country, The Oath) – recipient of the 2012 MacArthur Genius Fellowship and co-recipient of the 2014 Pulizer Prize for Public Service – became the first journalist contacted by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. After a series of encrypted e-mails, Poitras travels with Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald to Hong Kong for the first of many meetings to discuss the strategic release of voluminous evidence of industrial-scale surveillance that will result in the biggest intelligence leak in history.
As Poitras’ third film, Citizenfour is the culmination of a post-9/11 trilogy that spans a dark horizon from Iraq to Guantánamo. It’s a wow of a thriller; an enthralling, thought-provoking tale torn from recent headlines; and a compelling work of cinema, with all the paranoid density and abrupt changes of scenery of a John le Carré novel and a soul that isn’t computer generated. This is bold, fearless filmmaking, with more in common with All the President’s Men and The Conversation than any modern “true narrative.”
Blending the brisk globetrotting of the Bourne trilogy with the atmospheric effects of a Japanese horror film, Poitras adapts the cold language of data encryption to recount a dramatic saga of abuse of power, and demonstrates that information is a weapon that can cut both ways. It’s likely that her storytelling will be overshadowed by her opportunity, her craft by her access, and her thoroughly, unashamedly partisan attitude towards Snowden is an easy target. But she succeeds brilliantly in evoking a shadow villain intent on world domination.
Like a 1970s paranoia thriller with real-world consequences, Citizenfour is a useful primer in the civil liberties and consent issues that Snowden’s disclosures raised. It’s a real-time tableau of the confrontation between the individual and the state, a gripping record of how our rulers are addicted to gaining more and more power and control over us, if we let them. Dictatorships have always relied on the massive gathering of information in order to control their populations; in this brave new cyber world – a Huxleyan or Orwellian dystopia – democracies may similarly be crossing the line. Senators lie and congressmen squirm, and nobody is held accountable except Snowden.
Citizenfour wears many hats: it’s a bombshell revelation, a character study, a world-girdling espionage thriller, a crucial social document, an oblique manifesto, an expertly crafted exposé, and a model of understatement. It may be the most disturbing political documentary since Alex Gibney’s Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side. Its very existence makes us feel the danger of government invasion, yet it stands as a testament to the fact that while cowering under the corporate jackboot, we still have the power of expression, and that’s all we need to get a resistance off the ground.
If Citizenfour ends abruptly, it’s only because the real-life story is still far from over. How often do you watch someone change the world in real time? Big Brother is back, and he’s gone digital. Anyone with a phone should see it.