THE BLOG
10/29/2014 06:19 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2014

Citizenfour : The Spy Who Was Never Out in the Cold

Amanda Edwards via Getty Images

Officers of the CIA's clandestine service are often warned: don't fall in love with your agents. This cautionary advice is meant to be interpreted literally and figuratively. In Laura Poitras' compelling, controversial, and ultimately contradictory new documentary Citizenfour, the filmmaker seems to have fallen in love with her "agent" -- in this case the movie's hero, or villain, depending upon how you look at it -- Edward Snowden.

To be clear: contrary to popular jargon, a "CIA agent" is not the American employee of the Agency itself, but rather the recruited foreign human asset -- the person committing treason against his country or double-crossing the organization to which he belongs -- albeit for a higher purpose, from the CIA's perspective, of supplying valuable secret information to the USG. While it might not have been Poitras' intent, Citizenfour reveals, among other things, just how desperately Edward Snowden wanted to be -- more than just an agent, or even an agent of change -- a good old-fashioned spy.

Citizenfour is about shameful and widespread government wrongdoing, yes. It's about America's barreling down a treacherous path toward becoming a surveillance state, yes. But it's also about the colossal havoc wreaked by an ultimate spy wannabe. Tech support gone wild.

In my experience, it's impossible to publicly express a nuanced view of Edward Snowden the man or even what he did. I was an early and avid defender of Snowden -- for revealing the extent to which our government unlawfully and unconstitutionally monitors its own citizens. My siding with Snowden -- thereby invoking the wrath of conservatives -- occurred in the initial days of the story, before Snowden made a complete mockery of his protest by fleeing to Russia, the motherland of state-sanctioned surveillance. And weeks before he spilled all the beans about our spying capabilities, even ones directed at foreign governments and countries.

Note to those still outraged by the underhanded methods with which we obtain secret information about foreign governments: the NSA and the CIA are in the business of spying, which is -- by definition -- an invasion of privacy. We, the American taxpayers, provide the intelligence community a gazillion (or so) dollars every year to perform that very function. Chancellor Angela Merkel getting her panties in a wad over her personal cellphone being monitored was all for show; she knows the drill. And by the way: we're not just looking for terrorists -- we're after any and every bit of information that protects not just American lives, but also American interests -- economic and otherwise. One last thing: every other country with an intelligence service worth its salt is doing exactly the same thing we are.

When I turned from defending Snowden to publicly questioning his credibility and motives, I immediately summoned catcalls of treachery from liberals. In America's increasingly polarized political state, it seems you can either be for civil liberties or for security. You can either be for Edward Snowden or against him. He is either an idealistically pure martyr for the causes of privacy and freedom, or he is the geek incarnation of a suicide bomber -- a nemesis to American society who's done potentially deadly damage, and who now serves -- wittingly if not admittedly -- as an agent of our worst enemies.

Our judgments about Snowden and what he's done must also be in concert. We evidently cannot support some of Snowden's actions and condemn others. We cannot welcome the much-needed debate and change for which his initial leaks were the impetus, and at the same time decry how far he went. We cannot express anger at the massive scope of our government's surveillance upon its citizenry, and at the same time question the motives of the actor who brought these offenses to light. With Snowden, it seems, our opinions must be black and white.

The thing is -- in the spy world -- nothing is ever black and white. People and policies are inconsistent and contradictory. As a CIA operative -- which Edward Snowden, no matter his delusions of Jason Bourne grandeur, was not -- you are paid to lie, cheat and steal. Your mandate is to break the laws of other countries, but never break the laws of your own.

And if you're uncomfortable operating in the grey zone; if you're a moral or ethical purist; if you're bothered on a fundamental level by the necessity of invading anybody's privacy in order to gather information, well, you're in the wrong business.

But let's get back to Citizenfour and its on-screen love affair with Edward Snowden. The film opens with Poitras reading Snowden's emails in her own voice, giving them an intimate quality. In Snowden's self-introductory email, he presents himself to her as a "senior government employee," nearly causing me to hack a popcorn kernel across the theater. Later in the film, Snowden describes himself as having been a "senior advisor to the CIA" -- another laughable claim to anyone actually in the spy business.

While defenders of Snowden might argue that to focus on the frailties of the man is to detract and distract from the larger issue of government misconduct, Citizenfour is explicitly about Snowden, the man. Government officials appear only in dishonest public statements they have made. Granted, the physical tics and verbal "tells" of James Clapper when he's lying to congress never cease both to outrage and amuse. And while Snowden himself repeatedly says he doesn't want the story to be about him... the techie doth protest too much, methinks.

Citizenfour certainly humanizes Snowden -- he comes across as highly intelligent, articulate, polite, even witty. He well might be the world's crappiest boyfriend though -- fleeing the country while Lindsay Mills is on vacation, leaving her a note and the onus of dealing with a menacing "HR lady from NSA" -- anyone who's worked for the government knows just how terrifying those HR battleaxes can be -- as well as the surveillance trucks that inevitably show up, much to Snowden's unabashed glee; finally, he is important enough for Big Brother to pay attention to him!

But Snowden comes across as unevenly creditable, at best; one reason I was unable to buy repeated claims that the story should not be about him? In his first correspondences to Poitras, he adamantly recommends that she reveal his identity as early as possible, "nailing [him] to the cross." The guy's evidently got a Jesus complex to boot. Snowden's assertion that he's willing to go to prison for the cause doesn't hold much weight either, since he quite obviously is not.

In much of the film, which centers around Snowden sitting on an unmade bed in a Hong Kong hotel room, he struck me as less inherently admirable than pitiable. To understand the depths of Snowden's insecurity, and the lengths to which he would go to distinguish himself from other government bureaucrats and drones (the desk-dwelling human ones, I mean), one first needs to understand the social hierarchy of the spy business. Clandestine service officers -- also known as operations officers or case officers -- are considered the top echelon, the tip of the spear, the real-life James Bonds. Guys like Snowden, no matter their extraordinary access to classified information, are typically neither appreciated nor even acknowledged by the real spies. And tech savoir faire or superior intelligence -- as Snowden might indeed possess -- doesn't count for much in their realm. In status-conscious spydom, Edward Snowden was probably made to feel his inferiority, by people he considered intellectually beneath him no less, every single day.

Because Snowden eventually goes beyond exposing USG monitoring of its own citizens, to revealing nearly all of our sigint capabilities and activities worldwide, one is left to conclude that Snowden's motivations were less to serve the American public, as he claims, and more to enact straight-up psychological payback.

In his first meeting with Poitras in Hong Kong, Snowden employs rudimentary tradecraft -- I'll be doing a Rubik's cube (safety signal); you [Poitras] should ask the hours the restaurant is open and I'll respond that you should try the lounge instead (verbal bona fides). These are the sorts of tactics that highly-trained undercover operatives use with their agents. By approaching Laura Poitras (and Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian) with troves of classified information, and by directing the operation on his own spooky terms, Snowden was -- at long last -- part of the game.

When, later, he meets in the same hotel room with Greenwald, another Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill, and Poitras, who is filming, Snowden relishes the opportunity at last to be the smartest guy in the room -- instructing the others on the basics of spycraft and encrypted communications. Finally, people are hanging on his every word. When Greenwald suggests to Snowden that he remain anonymous for as long as possible, he seems uninterested -- claiming it won't be long before the government discovers him anyway. We are left with the sense that -- after all and above all -- this is Snowden's big moment in time.

Many of the visual details from that stifling Hong Kong hotel room, meant no doubt to cast Snowden in an empathetic light, are deliciously ironic: his fretful consultation on whether to-shave-or-not a germinating goatee; his irritated struggle to don hair mousse, and later to open a flimsy green umbrella that will evidently conceal his identity during escape; background television commentary from a British broadcaster about how the Snowden story is "straight out of John Le Carré" (no doubt causing Snowden spasms of inner delight); and lastly the Cary Doctorow novel Homeland on Snowden's night stand. It's is about a tech-savvy teenager who leads a revolution against a totalitarian security state, and it's classified... as "juvenile fiction" that is.

Luckily, just when you think Snowden festering in his hotel room could not become any more grating, Poitras trots out the far more wretched character of Julian Assange, holed up like an albino mole rat at the Ecuadoran Embassy in London. Let's take a moment to remind ourselves that Assange is on the lam not for anything related to WikiLeaks, but for sexual assault and rape. Assange appears on the phone gleefully relating developments to an unknown party, and mistakenly referring to Snowden as a "CIA agent."

Citizenfour is a two-hour long, alternately riveting and exasperating, film. Its ultimate message seems to be one of blanket opposition to spying of any kind on anyone... which is, in a nutshell, a bit unrealistic. I had to laugh after watching the lengths to which Snowden went to ensure security in Hong Kong -- pulling a red pillowcase over his head and laptop to prevent any visual recognition of decryption tactics, unplugging the phone after a suspicious call from the front desk inquiring as to the quality of his room service -- in contrast to him blithely chatting away when Poitras and Greenwald later visit him in Moscow. If Snowden thinks he's not subject to near constant, whisker-counting-style, surveillance in Russia, he's as naïve as he is misguided.

The film ends with Greenwald and Snowden passing cryptic notes to one another -- only a few of which the viewer is able to see, and they don't make sense to us anyway -- although each seems to point to a conspiracy that originates with POTUS -- that acronym being circled, boxed or underlined several times.

Turns out, there's a new source in town, and this one will reveal information that's even more "fucking ridiculous" -- in Snowden's words - than what we already know. Snowden worries aloud about the "boldness" of this new actor. He repeatedly questions Greenwald about if the new source can "handle it" -- presumably the consequences, or is it the notoriety?

There's no doubt, Poitras is priming us for a sequel to Citizenfour, and poor Edward Snowden -- destined perhaps to waste away in dacha-bound obscurity -- may have just realized that she's taken on a new, and much more captivating, lover.