Craig Zobel’s debut feature, Great World of Sound (2007), won Breakthrough Director at the Gotham Awards, and was nominated for Best First Film and Best Supporting Actor at the Independent Spirit Awards. His second film, Compliance, premiered at Sundance 2012, and won a Special Jury Prize at the Locarno International Film Festival. Actress Ann Dowd was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Independent Spirit Awards and Critic’s Choice awards, and was named Best Supporting Actress of 2012 by The National Board of Review. Craig’s most recent film, Z for Zachariah, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Pine and Margot Robbie, premiered at Sundance 2015 and was released in the U.S. by Roadside Attractions to strong reviews.
To say Laura Poitras is a gifted filmmaker isn’t news. She has already won a MacArthur Genius Fellowship following her work on 2010’s The Oath — a complicated, wonderfully ambiguous film, principally following Bin Laden’s former bodyguard, now a taxi driver in Yemen. It also won’t be news that CITIZENFOUR is a shoo-in to win next year’s Oscar for best documentary. Even if the film were not good, it’d still have the best chance of winning: Poitras was the first person Edward Snowden contacted after he decided to release his information. Poitras wrote articles about Snowden’s revelations for The Washington Post, for which she has already won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service (shared with her teammates at The Guardian). The fact that CITIZENFOUR is also, in fact, very good just makes that inevitable Oscar seem much more well deserved.
Poitras had been making a follow-up to The Oath for several years — her new film about comprehensive modern surveillance in the U.S. — when she started getting e-mails from a government contractor using the handle “Citizen Four.” He claimed he had a large volume of data on domestic civilian surveillance programs that he wanted to expose. The man encouraged Poitras to meet him in person and bring a print journalist. He suggested her colleague Glen Greenwald, a writer from The Guardian. And in June 2013, Poitras and Greenwald went to Hong Kong for eight days to meet Citizen Four, a contractor for the NSA named Ed Snowden (in the film, he states that he prefers “Ed”). Poitras filmed everything from the start, and that footage is the center of the film.
It’s gripping in the style of an international espionage thriller. The score is perfect, and the photography is crisp and confident. There are even wide shots of ominous satellite dishes in Scotland, bustling vistas of Rio de Janeiro, and shimmering secret government bases in the Utah desert — all with identifying text on the screen — like something you might see in Syriana or one of the Bourne movies. (It’s worth noting that Steven Soderbergh is an executive producer.) But the compelling scenes in Snowden’s hotel room remind you that this is totally real.
Snowden’s face is an open book. It’s easy to see that he has principled ethical beliefs, that he’s highly intelligent, that he’s already wrestled with the rights and wrongs of his actions waaay more than you or I have, and also that he’s terrified. One scene where he admits that he didn’t tell his girlfriend anything in order to protect her — he just left for work one morning and all of a sudden was in Hong Kong spilling some of America’s most incendiary secrets — is a moment that sorta broke my heart.
It is rare in our current era to see someone who is so devoted to an abstract principle like liberty that they’d actually give up their life for it. This nobility makes the film at times wildly uncomfortable to watch, as if Snowden’s committing a sort of hara-kiri on screen for us.
Greenwald is quickly moved by the man (and you sense Poitras is as well, though she’s too classy to show up on camera), so he and Poitras start bringing up the idea of Snowden remaining anonymous. Snowden has already made this calculation, though, and knows the story can’t just devolve into people trying to guess who this new Deep Throat might be. It needs to be about the information and why it matters. So he’s chosen to be sacrificed in order for the information to stay center-stage. “You’re not going to bully me into silence,” he says in a way that’s clearly practiced, and also heartbreakingly earnest.
And, of course, now he has been sacrificed. He’s considered a traitor by the Fox News set. Conservative, pro-surveillance politicians have had a field day saying Snowden just wanted personal fame and publicity, taking time to mock his goatee and hairstyle along the way. My dad, an avid right-wing AM radio listener, told me this guy should rot in jail. Which is one possible outcome: he’s wanted for theft of U.S. government property, and two counts of violating the U.S. Espionage Act, an ancient and draconian piece of legislation which, as Snowden’s ACLU attorney explains in one brilliant scene, doesn’t allow for a jury trial, and draws not a single distinction between exposing government secrets to a careful citizen-journalist or to a hostile foreign nation.
I’m not sure those Fox News people who hate Snowden will ever watch the film, which is a shame. The information he revealed should be causing as much uproar on the Right, for exposing the potential for massive U.S. security breaches, as it has on the Left over violations of civil liberties. Those who worry so much about terrorism that they will happily concede to (and even promote) the dragnet collection of citizen information though digital surveillance should be even more concerned about what a terrorist might do with access to that very same information. And that’s just me hypothesizing about rogue terror groups with hacking capabilities. I’m sure we could have equally juicy discussions about authoritarian governments with anti-U.S. aims accessing the very information our government collected on us.
I believe this film was made in hopes of clearing Snowden of this “fame-seeking traitor” slur. And for me, it succeeds enormously. The man is calm, eloquent and quite clear about the thought processes that led to his disclosure. In one scene, Snowden makes a point of saying he doesn’t know what should be revealed: he doesn’t want to affect the release with what he calls “my bias.” He has strong opinions and knows his opinions could color any WikiLeaks-esque “data-dump” he might have engineered by himself. That’s why he hands it over to journalists — who have armies of editors, fact-checkers and lawyers at their disposal — to let them decide what will not endanger national security, and yet still expose the injustice. He trusts the Fourth Estate, and hands over his information in the clear belief it will do what is right.
I was quite taken with the Snowden story last year as it erupted. I even briefly investigated the prospect of attempting a narrative feature based on the events. I stopped after I discovered that Oliver Stone was actively pursuing it, flying to Russia to meet Snowden and whatnot. Stone has certainly made films with positive political ramifications before — for example, he wrote Midnight Express, which singlehandedly changed American and Turkish extradition laws. But Stone is a polarizing figure to the American Right, and I worry his involvement will help further perpetuate Snowden’s “traitor” status, regardless of the film’s content.
The truth is that CITIZENFOUR dispenses with the need for any narrative feature version. This movie is actual cinéma vérité: it shows the real event, captured as it was unfolding. Any actor attempting to play Ed Snowden would literally be reduced to copying this documentary. Any writer wondering what should happen next would be reduced to re-imagining scenes that are already completely documented in real time. Trent Reznor even did the score already! No need for a dramatized account to tell the “character” story of it; that’s what Laura Poitras has already so brilliantly done.