Perhaps less a truly great documentary than it is a capital-I Important one, Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour offers the kind of thorough behind-the-scenes look that we never see of most major news stories.
We all know about Edward Snowden, the NSA employee who leaked classified documents to the press and revealed the U.S. government’s deception regarding surveillance. But Citizenfour offers insight into Snowden the person, showing his surprisingly cool-headed approach to leaking the documents and, subsequently, dealing with the immediate fallout from his actions.
A lot of what makes Citizenfour so remarkable is the extremely unusual amount of access that Poitras is given to a situation in real time, as everything is unfolding; because Snowden has “gone rogue”, there’s no red tape holding Poitras back. What results is an uncensored and unforgiving expose of the government’s surveillance tactics, which Snowden himself describes very concisely through much of the film. Snowden’s eloquence simultaneously makes him an interesting subject and damns the NSA more by the minute.
Speaking of Snowden, Poitras paints an interesting and complicated portrait. As a filmmaker, she isn’t shy about making her own biases known in regards to surveillance, even evoking her own personal experiences. (Though I wouldn’t say that this bias overwhelms the film.) However, she takes a more even-handed and human approach to Snowden, showing a few different sides of him that were surprising. For example, while the film overall paints a flattering portrait, scenes where Snowden is crafting his next media move and even openly embracing the fact that he’s headed for international notoriety are fascinating to watch unfold.
Citizenfour loses some steam in its second half after the classified documents have started to be published, as some of the tension built earlier on starts to dissipate. Of course, being a documentary, Poitras can only manipulate things so much in the name of dramatic effect. Maybe all I’m really saying is that I’m looking forward to the fictional retelling of the story (which is, of course on its way courtesy of Oliver Stone). But in terms of storytelling, I just thought that things could’ve been structured more deftly.
Nonetheless, Citizenfour is illuminating, shocking, and vital. The fact that someone was there to capture that moment in time is incredible, and it’s just a bonus that the central figure is charismatic and surprisingly likeable. What results is a compelling and well-made film that proves the power of documentary.