This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 15th February 2015
4 1/2 stars
In June 2013, the world awoke to the breaking news that, actually, Big Brother is watching you pretty intently. While some will hold the view that if you’re not committing a crime, the state’s oversight of your private life is of no consequence, the substance of Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing revelations and the extent of government intrusion was mind-blowing.
Filmmaker Laura Poitras was Snowden’s first point of contact in early 2013 as he prepared to drop his truth bomb. When invited to meet the former NSA analyst in a hotel room in Hong Kong months later, Poitras did what any award-winning documentary maker would do: she switched on her camera and hit Record. Thus we get to witness the surprisingly thrilling first moments when a true freedom fighter (who is another man’s traitor) tells Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald what he knows and, crucially, his rationale for putting his own life on the line and losing all his relationships in order to tell the American people the terrible truth: your government knows everything about you.
By necessity, the film requires you to read quickly and listen carefully, but Poitras’ dulcet voiceover and the almost complete lack of soundtrack helps to make this an easy task. So, too, do Snowden’s stories. Interposed with archive footage of congressmen lying to senate committees and activists warning of the dangers of handing your cellphone over to authority, the scenes of Snowden holed up in one room over several days are quite simply gripping. He is charismatic, exceptionally bright and articulate, and surprisingly engaging for someone whose previous job allowed him to watch surveillance drones in real time on his laptop.
Poitras’ film is incredibly discreet and subtle in its telling, taking a Jason Bourne-like reality but refusing to inflate the drama for kicks. Instead, she lets the words speak for themselves. There are even moments of black humour between interviewer and interviewee around Snowden’s physical predicament.
The filmmaker states this is the third part in a trilogy about America post-9/11, but if Snowden stays alive and well in Russia, the increasing relevance of Citizenfour surely begs for a sequel.