Two kinds of people are interested in Laura Pointras' new documentary, CitizenFour, about Edward Snowden's early contacts with journalists Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and herself. Let's have a review of the film for each group, the Haters and Everyone Else.
But First, a Quick Recap
Snowden worked deep inside America's national security state. His last job was as a contract systems administrator for the NSA. Through this job he obtained a massive trove of documents which, when made public, demonstrated to the world U.S. government electronic surveillance and espionage on a scale even its worst critics had not fully described. The documents also validated the information provided by earlier NSA whistleblowers. Snowden left the U.S. for Hong Kong, where he met the journalists above, and where most of CitizenFour was filmed. Following U.S. government efforts to bring Snowden back to the U.S., he left for Moscow, likely enroute to some other place, possibly Ecuador. He instead spent weeks in suspended status at the Moscow Airport before being granted long-term residency.
With few exceptions, pretty much everyone can agree with that basic outline of the Snowden story to date, and CitizenFour does a very good job recounting most of it. It is there, however, where agreement ends. CitizenFour (the title comes from the codename Snowden choose for himself when first contacting filmmaker Pointras) cannot be understood independently from the greater Snowden story, and separate from the strong opinions of Snowden's decisions.
Review for Real Haters
If you thought traitors like Chelsea Manning have their hate groups, they aren't jack compared to what those on the right side (oh yes, pun intended) of the house will think of this film. To them, Pointras has created an evil-genius piece of propaganda, with the give-away starting point that she was a huge part of the Snowden story herself, throwing out any hint of objectivity. Her success at humanizing Snowden, portraying him as the amiable geek-nerd-manchild you could have a Lite beer with, is Riefenstahl-level work.
This is a celebrity "authorized biography" with all the integrity those have. Apart from making a traitor look good, they'll say, Pointras also crudely tells only the tidy parts of the story. Snowden's believed-espionage relationships with Russia and China are glossed over. Many details of his time in Hong Kong and sneaky flights in and out are absent. Nothing is said about why Snowden won't return to the U.S. to defend his so-called honorable acts in court like a man. Nothing is said about how the NSA keeps America safe from Americans. Snowden is a starry-eyed savior of the left who'd likely smirk from his cozy Russian lair as America is attacked again.
Review for Everyone Else
CitizenFour is impressive filmmaking. Pointras starts with the problem of telling a story most people already know, in an engaging way, trying to reach a broad audience in many cases polarized as to her subject, and her Subject. She succeeds brilliantly, and if CitizenFour is not awarded the Academy Award for Best Documentary then that award no longer is relevant.
To be fair to other films in award contention, Pointras starts from, and makes the most of, some very significant advantages. She is indeed part of the story (a fact she never hides nor diminishes) and thus enjoys a level of trust and access from her subjects almost unavailable to other documentarians. The viewer is in the room as the journalists with Snowden struggle to understand the story he is trying to tell them, working to interpret the documents he shows them and creating on the fly the most effective way to bring this information to the public. It is heady stuff.
The interplay between Snowden and the journalists is dramatic, but in the sense that it is real human stuff. When Snowden claims he does not care if he is exposed as the whistleblower-- he encourages the journalists to name him-- they back off a step, and try to make sure Snowden truly knows the impact such a decision will have on him and people he cares about. Funny things happen, particularly when Snowden realizes he is explaining some technical point to people who are nowhere near his level of expertise (an exchange about password security between Snowden and Greenwald is laugh-out-loud funny.)
Pointras skillfully weaves her story, presenting it sometimes as if it was a thriller (it is), other times as a classic movie brave journalist saga (it is) and often times as a profile of a man everyone thinks they know but does not (it is that too.)
Parts of Snowden's journey from Hawaii to Moscow are omitted. Most sentient members of the audience will understand they have to be, given the global efforts underway to nab Snowden, and the need to protect the many people who played a role who choose to or need to remain anonymous. None of that is new in a documentary-- turn on the evening news and witnesses speak in shadowy profile, while most docs about the CIA or the NSA alter voices and employ false names for the same reasons. Anyone expecting Pointras' film to be a How to Catch Edward Snowden for Dummies will indeed be disappointed.
Perhaps most powerfully, Pointras' portrait of Snowden is of a whistleblower for a new generation. He is passionate, but in a laid-back way, confident in his actions such that his passion comes from within, maybe call it a kind of intellectual hipster patriotism. He is political, but in a small "p" way, moving through classic Left and Right into a place where many young people feel more comfortable, with a focus on issues such as privacy and authoritarianism above two sides shouting "Facist!" and "Hippie!" at each other in some news show's clumsy attempt at their parents' version of balance. When dealing with the older journalists in that hotel room, Snowden at times sounds like many young people do explaining how the DVR works to moms and dads dully mystified by but stuck being dependent on new technologies.
And there (partisan now, no shame) lies CitizenFour's most long-lasting contribution. There are millions of young men and women working inside the Dark State, often times with impressive levels of access to information. Like Snowden, they have seen evidence of government wrongdoing, obscenities directed at the Constitution, harm done to ordinary citizens. Almost every one of those people will remain silent, partners to the crimes. But maybe -- just maybe -- one out of a million will see a role model, an example, that rings true in CitizenFour, and stand to speak.