CITIZENFOUR begins in a nondescript tunnel of darkness, illuminated by lines of white lights. Over this image of the underground a voice, Laura Poitras’s, reads one of Edward Snowden’s first emails to her. Her recitation is steady and cautious, almost understated: his words convey their own gravity.
No one, not even my most trusted confidante, is aware of my intentions, and it would not be fair for them to fall under suspicion for my actions. You may be the only one who can prevent that, and that is by immediately nailing me to the cross rather than trying to protect me as a source.
In January of 2013, Poitras began receiving emails from an anonymous government employee who identified himself as Citizenfour. While the revelations of their encrypted correspondence — a massive leak of nearly 200,000 government documents — have since reverberated widely, the immediate circumstances of their transmission have yet to come to light. Poitras’s new documentary presents us with an unprecedented portrait of how Snowden and his secrets became an object of public knowledge.
Snowden’s first messages were sent to Poitras while she was finishing a film about the NSA, the last in her trilogy about the US post-9/11. Her earlier work had documented the whistleblower William Binney, the elections in Iraq, and Guantanamo. It was for this work, and her previous efforts at documenting the surveillance state, that Snowden chose to contact Poitras. It was also for this work that Poitras had been placed on the NSA’s watch list and repeatedly detained at airports wherever she traveled, always without explanation. She wanted to capture, in the trilogy’s final film, the sweeping and indiscriminate scope of the surveillance state by focusing her lens on those whose lives had been dedicated to disabling its reach.
Snowden’s documents provided hard evidence for what many of Poitras’s whistleblower and security expert subjects had already claimed. The agency was, indeed, spying on millions of ordinary Americans. His documents would soon become the center of her film — and of the world’s attention. Accordingly, she condensed her earlier two years of footage into the film’s first act.
By cutting together a series of meetings, events, speeches, and legal hearings across the nation, Poitras sketches the situation into which Snowden’s documents entered. We see journalist Glenn Greenwald, surrounded by his conspicuously large dogs at his Rio de Janeiro home, call into a TV news station to discuss President Obama’s disregard for the law in deploying drones. We see William Binney, former Cold War crypto-mathematician, reveal at a Hacker Conference in New York that the NSA’s Stellar Wind program is collecting more data than ever. What emerges from these talking points are the attendant anxieties of an age of increasing surveillance. These anxieties are not meant to be soothed easily. When asked by Congress if the NSA routinely collects the data of its citizens as part of its surveillance operations, its director responds, “No,” and then adds, “… not wittingly.”
The second act returns us to the opening’s dark tunnel, through which we now exit into the sunlight of Hong Kong, where Poitras and Greenwald have traveled to meet Snowden. Minutes after their first meeting at the Mira Hotel, Poitras sets up her camera and begins to film. For the next eight days she films the Hong Kong hotel room where she, Glenn Greenwald, and his colleague from The Guardian interviewed Snowden. What unfolds in that room is a character study, chamber drama, and political thriller all at once.
The first time we see Snowden, on June 3, 2013, he is nervous but not as nervous as one would expect for someone testifying on camera. He begins by explaining to Greenwald both the mechanisms of the surveillance regime and his reasons for explaining them.
Snowden’s job, as he saw it, paid him “to amplify methods to increase state power” — and its demands only grew during the Obama administration, much to his dismay. As he watched a chilling effect settle over people’s communications on the internet, he tells Greenwald, he felt moved to take action. He used his technical skills to securely download and encrypt government documents and communication but needed journalists to mediate the sharing of his files with the public. He says that he wants the media to serve as an impartial filter for the documents so that his own political “biases” don’t get in the way. It is strange that he holds a naive faith in the media’s strategic ritual of objectivity when he is also so canny of its faults. Aware of the media’s propensity to focus on simple characters over complex issues, he continually emphasizes his desire for the contents of his leak, and not his life, to carry the coverage.
Much of the drama in the film’s second act revolves around deciding when Snowden should, as he puts it, “place the target squarely on his own back.” After Greenwald breaks his first story — that Verizon is turning over the data of its customers — government agents begin to question Snowden’s girlfriend, but Snowden reacts fairly calmly to this news, predicting that it will take some time still before lawyers take concrete action. When Poitras and Barton Gellman publish the second major story in The Washington Post, the stakes are raised again for Snowden’s personal life. Rather than seeing the public’s reaction to this breaking news, we are given access to Snowden’s immediate reactions to his impending discovery. There are now trucks surrounding the street where his girlfriend lives and that she’s been threatened with eviction, despite having paid the rent. It is at this point that the dramatic decision — to come out now or to come out later — reaches its pitch.
On the one hand, Snowden does not want to tell the government something they may not know. On the other, it’s only a matter of time before the government confirms his involvement. While his presence might distract from the documents, he wants people to feel the agential power of his choice to leak them. Besides, the longer he waits in the shadows, the more it might seem like he’s scared, or has something personal to hide. “These are not my issues. These are everyone’s issues,” he tells Greenwald. And to the government, he adds, “I’m not afraid of you.”
Housing Snowden in his tense and semi-solitary confinement, the hotel room itself becomes a character. The phone is possibly bugged. In the middle of one interview, the fire alarm goes off intermittently — apparently just for testing. The TV plays the faces of government officials and whistleblowing advocates (among them Jesselyn Radack and William Binney) debating his actions. The ever-present surveillance state takes form in the sinister side of these ordinary objects. As sci-fi author Philip K. Dick once wrote in his journals: “The ultimate in paranoia is not when everyone is against you but when everything is against you. Instead of ‘My boss is plotting against me,’ it would be ‘My boss’s phone is plotting against me.’” But as Snowden needs to reminds us: “It’s not Science Fiction. This stuff is happening right now.”
But his situation can also be funny. When early on, Greenwald earnestly asks Snowden about his schedule for the coming days, he responds with perfect deadpan: “I’m not going anywhere.” Snowden also gently teases Greenwald about his lack of tech skills — “Was that a … four character password?” — as he tries to give him pro tips for cyber-security. When Ewen MacAskill of The Guardian joins Greenwald to report, he interrupts Snowden’s detailed revelations of British surveillance activities to say: “I don’t know your name.” Understandably, he couldn’t have been fully briefed beforehand without risking everyone’s safety, but the dramatic irony is comical.
Still, this endgame — waiting for the door to be kicked down or worse — is tense. Time slows. There is an unusual amount of silence for a documentary, or film, for that matter. It starts to feel like spy novel. Then, Snowden “comes out.” Greenwald begins posting stories that insinuate the presence of a single source. He is leaking, so to speak, the existence of the leaker. Snowden’s official coming-out video, shot by Poitras in the room, goes out on Monday, June 10, 2013. The rest is history — and the film’s third act.
The tunnel that opens and closes the first two acts of the film is located in Hong Kong, but it is not a stretch to understand the tunnel as representing our own technological imaginary: the tunnels that run through all of our cities, the subways, the fiber optic cables, the streams of information, the data moving from the US to Hong Kong at the speed of light — the subterranean flow of information, goods, and people that lived in the shadows until one fine day, a man in Hawaii brought it into the light. Or that’s one version of the story. But it’s a documentary about state oppression, not a Hollywood feature, so it’s ending is necessarily as bleak as it is hopeful. After the film premiered at the New York Film Festival, Poitras told the audience: “Yes, this is the final film in the trilogy [about the country after 9/11]. But movement of the country hasn’t changed much. It’s kind of tragic to be standing here.”
The aftershocks in post-Snowden America, which comprise the film’s third act, are equal parts joyful and despairing. Snowden eventually finds asylum in Russia; Poitras flies back to Berlin and Greenwald to Portugal; The Guardian, Der Spiegel, and other news outlets publish more stories; Angela Merkel finds out her cell phone has been tapped; ACLU lawyers discover that Snowden will be tried under the merciless Espionage Act from World War I; Greenwald’s boyfriend is detained at the airport; Snowden’s girlfriend moves to Moscow to join him.
In the film’s final scene, which was shot and edited only weeks before its release, Greenwald and Poitras head to Moscow to visit Snowden. To evade audio surveillance, Greenwald and Snowden pass handwritten notes back and forth. On the table before them lie dozens of folded pieces of paper, but the viewers can’t see what’s written on the notes; they can only see Snowden’s facial and exclamatory verbal reactions to the notes, both of which become increasingly expressive with each ensuing revelation. The scene’s choreographed irony would not feel out of place in a dark comedy by the Coen Brothers, and when we are finally granted access to what’s on one of the notes, it rivals their imaginative absurdity: a flowchart sketched by Greenwald shows all drone strikes leading to POTUS. While this information has now been public for some time, it’s simple visualization serves as a stark reminder.
Greenwald then tells Snowden that a new bold source, presumably inspired by Snowden’s action, has come forward. The source has also revealed that over 1.2 million people — meaning millions of ordinary citizens — are on the government watch list. Snowden is shocked. As think piece after think piece has warned us, the potential for abusing this unnecessarily massive trove of data is enormous. Nor would it be hard to imagine, with these numbers, an NSA agent appearing on the watch list and being assigned, as in a Philip K. Dick novel, to spy on himself.
This hypothetical figure of the bureaucratic agent chasing after himself in circles is a useful one, insofar as it can remind us not only of the paranoia of surveillance but of its conjoined twin: its total banality. Where paranoia proclaims they are watching me, I must go into hiding, banality states my life is boring; I have nothing to hide. All the waiting and silence in the film remind us that for all of its attendant anxieties and surprises, a lifestyle of spying on others also brings with it its own kind of boredom.
At one point in the film, Snowden tells Greenwald, almost as an afterthought, that at his government job it was possible to stream the footage of surveillance drones all day long. You could choose to watch any drone feed you liked from the comfort of your desk; it was as easy as changing the channels on TV. The implications of his casual aside are that surveillance has become a form of entertainment for those who have the security clearance to watch it. It’s a shocking fact at face value, but it’s also an eerie reminder in the context of watching his life in this documentary.
When we watch this footage of Snowden, what are we watching if not an act of surveillance repurposed for our entertainment? It is a central irony unacknowledged by the film that Poitras is given permission to invade the privacy of the man who sacrificed his civil liberties to defend ours. Poitras’s film affords us intimate access into some of the most private hours of Snowden’s life. We see Snowden hanging out in a white robe, chatting with his girlfriend, watching his own manhunt on TV. In a particularly intense moment, she zooms into his hands, his face. Aided by her camera, we collect our own visual clues: what he’s reading (Cory Doctorow’s Homeland), the Rubik’s cube he used to identify himself to Poitras, the crooked teeth in the corner of his smile.
Complicit with the camera’s gaze, it’s easy to forget that we might be looking at something we do not have the right to see. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we are only reminded of our impropriety in looking at all when our gaze is excluded. When Snowden types his password into his computer, he puts on a hooded piece of fabric that covers his computer and his face. He directly tells Poitras that her camera is passively collecting visual data on his passwords. It is likely that the censored text in the final scene attracts the audience’s attention more than any other visual artifact in the whole film. When does our looking go too far? What didn’t Snowden have a right to see? Who should legislate the limits of transparency?
In the world of the film, Poitras’s rule sets these laws. Whereas we once saw every mole on Snowden’s face, we now see his new life in Russia with his girlfriend through their lit kitchen window. We remain in the dark outside his house. The implication is twofold. He now has a private life as a normal ordinary citizen: our voyeurism is intrusive. But of course, we should now know all too well, that even if he was actually just another ordinary expatriated citizen, this would not make him any less immune to being watched. The window, then, serves both as the barrier protecting his privacy and as the screen enabling his further surveillance. Through her concealing and revealing lens, Poitras attempts to turn our gaze from the pleasures of Snowden’s surveillance towards the actions of our government watching us — to rouse us to more vigilantly watch them watch ourselves.
Poitras is not unaware that she has made Snowden the center of her story, thrusting him back into the spotlight he never wanted to occupy. But she has stated that the aim of the documentary, released long after the documents leaked, is to provide Snowden’s motives in his own words to the public and to inspire other whistleblowers to follow his lead. That his leaks are now old news does not matter so long as the fact remains: that somewhere someone is always being watched, even if they have nothing to hide — even if their activities are once again, or always have been, banal.