Movie Review



US Release Date: 11-06-2014

Directed by: Laura Poitras


  • Edward Snowden
  • Himself
  • Glenn Greenwald
  • Himself
  • William Binney
  • Himself
  • Jacob Appelbaum
  • Himself
  • Ewen MacAskill
  • Himself
  • Jeremy Scahill
  • Himself
Average Stars:
Reviewed on: February 12th, 2015
Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald

Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald

Citizenfour is a documentary by political film maker Laura Poitras, who claims to have been put on a government watch list in 2006 after making a film about the Iraq war. In January 2013, she began to receive emails from a source identifying themself as “Citizenfour” who claimed to have evidence of illegal covert surveillance by the NSA. They arranged to secretly meet in Hong Kong that May. She brought her camera and two reporters, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill.

Citizenfour turned out to be Edward Snowden, a 29 year old former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He worked undercover as a contractor to the U.S. National Security Agency facilities in the United States and at an NSA outpost in Japan. In March 2013, he worked at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton inside the NSA center in Hawaii.  

Snowden establishes several things at the beginning of the filming. He originally voted for Obama but due to Obama not keeping any of his promises, voted third party the following election. It was that disillusionment and his feeling that the American people no longer had the ability to oppose the government’s power by the internet being monitored, that compelled him to come forth.

He states that he is willing to risk his freedom for the people’s right to, “…intellectual exploration.” He takes full responsibility for his actions and states that no co-worker or family member knows what he is doing. He also tells Greenwald, “I am not the story here.” That may have been his intention but that is all this movie has to offer.

All of those who cared heard or read the news stories when they were released. This documentary sheds little new light onto the subject to those of us who followed it. We get several scenes of Snowden watching news television, looking at himself in a mirror and answering the reporter’s questions. For some reason, Poitras includes scenes of Snowden simply typing on his computer or looking pensive. Snowden becomes the story whether he wanted it to play out that way or not. The movie becomes more interesting when he comes out as the source and the media literally begins stalking him and he realizes that he may be arrested and extradited for what he calls political speech. He then goes underground ending up in Russia after the United States revoked his passport during a layover in Moscow.

One of the most fascinating aspects to Snowden’s story is how differently people reacted to the information he revealed. It is a subject this documentary barely touches. The Obama administration immediately called him a traitor for revealing that the United States actively spies on other nations. Who is dumb enough to think that we did not spy on other countries? As if they do not spy on us.

No, the reason that became the administration’s stance was to deflect from the real interest of the story being that the United States government is spying on other countries for reasons other than national security. Greenwald states at a hearing that since 9/11 the government’s excuse was that “Everything is in the name of national security, to protect our population.” But many documents Snowden showed him revealed it is about “…competition between countries and with companies’ industrial, financial or economic issues.” also that the government is not just keeping track of who is communicating with who but the actual content of those emails, texts, google searches and phone calls. Where have you gone George Orwell? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Snowden is preaching to an ever growing choir when he says, “The balance of power between the citizenry and the government is becoming that of the ruling and the ruled as opposed to the elected and the electoral.” We are later shown a clip of President Obama giving a very unconvincing speech. “I don’t think Mr. Snowden is a patriot.” He attempts to speak for the American people when he says there should have been a lawful examination and debate on the (surveillance) laws that would, “…lead us to a better place.” He is a politician.

That will forever be Edward Snowden’s legacy. Some will see him as a hero, revealing to the world just how little privacy they have and just how unfair the world is if you are the one that is privy to that information. Others will see him as a traitor because they do not like having the truth embarrass their President.

No matter where you stand on this issue, you should consider this quote by J. Applebaum, “When we lose privacy … we lose freedom itself.” 

Reviewed on: February 21st, 2015
Edward Snowden in CITIZENFOUR.

Edward Snowden in CITIZENFOUR.

As Eric said, Snowden repeatedly states that he doesn't want to get in the way of the story, but his actions say otherwise. He didn't just release the documents anonymously, or mail or email them to the press, he spoke to them in person, including giving interviews about himself. When reporter Glenn Greenwald suggests that perhaps they keep his identity a secret for as long as possible, Snowden is against the idea, saying that he wants to stand up and say, "I'm not afraid." Later, when Snowden is to leave the hotel where the interviews have been conducted, he is shown carefully tending his hair, wearing contacts instead of glasses, and dressing all in black, with sunglasses tucked into the collar of his shirt. His motivation for revealing what he did may have been mostly honorable, but it seems that he also, at least in part, wants to be seen as the young crusader bringing this message to the masses and he wants to project a certain image when he does.

Snowden chose documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras to tell his story and he made an appropriate choice as she wants to insert herself into the story as well. The film begins with her statement that she is on a government watch list and references that fact or similar detail about herself so often that it starts to feel like she's bragging rather than complaining. She wants to be seen as the renegade filmmaker taking on the government. Although she's never shown, her presence is always felt through voiceover and captions, all of which are unnecessary. This is Snowden's story and you don't need to know anything about her to follow that story.

Again as Eric said, this movie offers surprisingly little detail or new information about what was in the documents that Snowden revealed. Poitras is much more interested in the personalities involved than dry facts. Halfway through we are shown Greenwald, who is gay, reunited with his romantic partner in an airport where his partner had been held for hours on his return to the UK. It's a very humanizing scene for Greenwald, but has little bearing on the story, especially as we're never told why he was held. We only have the implication that it has something to do with Greenwald's reporting activities, but details are never revealed.

I disagree with Eric that the biggest revelation to come out of the Snowden affair was that the US government was spying on other countries for competitive reasons. Everyone already knew, or suspected that we were spying on other countries, even the friendly ones. And the other governments probably knew that as well, even if they had to act surprised when the news was revealed. Many friendly countries, such as the UK, shared in the information being gained. No, the biggest revelation and the most Orwellian, is that the US government is spying on its own citizens with the cooperation of telecoms, search engines, and ISPs. The fact that they are able to do this with such little oversight makes it even worse.

The subject of this documentary is interesting enough that it will hold your attention. However, it's a cursory look into the story. It reveals nothing new, except perhaps a look at the personality of Edward Snowden, and to a lesser extent that of the filmmaker herself.

Reviewed on: February 24th, 2015
Edward Snowden in CITIZENFOUR.

Edward Snowden in CITIZENFOUR.

Edward Snowden has balls for doing what he did. To come forward with proof of what many people already suspected, and to take a stand against the United States Government takes courage. He seems to be coming from an honorable place even though his intentions seem a bit naive at times. We live in a very different society from just 20 years ago. The internet has made the world a much smaller place. It has changed many people's lives for the better, and made things more convenient. Shopping at home is as easy as clicking buttons. But we are now beginning to realize that having the world at our fingertips comes at a price. Namely, that any and all internet activity can be, and is being, monitored by the federal government with little or no oversight.

But is this really any worse than the fact that we spend most of our lives being monitored by cameras? And for the same reason. Everything is done in the name of security now. 9/11 changed the world forever. So, while I think that what Edward Snowden did, he did with noble intentions, I don't think it was worth the personal price he is paying for it. Pandora's Box has been opened and there's no closing it again. Even if the NSA were to be successfully sued in court does anyone really believe it would stop the government from continuing to covertly collect this data in the future?

Call me paranoid but this is one reason why I don't own a Smart Phone, and prefer to make most of my purchases with cash. Edward Snowden was born in 1983, the year before George Orwell's most famous novel was set. It may have taken a bit longer than Orwell thought but we are now well on our way towards becoming the future he described so chillingly in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The most compelling thing about the Oscar winning CITIZENFOUR is watching in real time as Ed Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and William Binney plan their leak to the press. You can see the fear, anticipation and excitement on their faces. But a little of this goes a long way, and I agree with my brothers that little new information to the actual story is offered here. So while the subject matter is fascinating, the film itself is a bit too long and dry. We certainly haven't heard the last of Edward Snowden however. Oliver Stone is already hard at work on a biopic with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden. It hits theaters this Christmas.

CITIZENFOUR confirmed something for me. That modern technology is truly scary. Think about it. We spend many hours every day looking at screens and, apparently, there is someone -or some thing- looking back at us.

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