It’s possible to love a movie that’s factually screwy. It’s also possible to love a movie about unlikable people. As Chez Pazienza and I discussed on our membership-only podcast The After Party, Oliver Stone’s JFK is a somewhat appropriate relative of Laura Poitras’ Academy Award winning Citizenfour. Both movies possess similar levels of over-the-top conspiratorial tension; both movies are shaky on facts and context; and both movies contain absolutely riveting scenes in which a character divulges top secret information while hiding in a hotel room.
JFK is, on the other hand, historical fiction, while Citizenfour is a documentary — a format that’s supposed to be non-fiction. However, it’s possible to dispute the delivery of what are comported as “facts” in either format, while admiring each movie as being significant achievements in filmmaking. In other words, it’d be naive to assume that all documentaries are unbiased and indisputably factual, even the really excellent ones.
Knowing all this, and as I mentioned last week, I loved Citizenfour. I realize the deep irony in such a review given how I’ve been slamming the reporting surrounding Ed Snowden since day one (I stand by all of it), as well as Glenn Greenwald’s national security reporting for several years prior to that, but I tend to give filmmakers far more latitude because while documentaries can be journalism, they don’t have to be held to the same standards in order to be great. First and foremost, documentary films are about storytelling. Political messages or hard news reporting are a distant second and third on the list.
While the NSA and GCHQ reporting in The Guardian and The Intercept were based almost exclusively on the Snowden documents, Citizenfour is a documentary about Snowden more than anything or anyone else. Indeed, the movie is named after him, not NSA or GCHQ. It’s not called “Run Away! The NSA and Obama Are Spying On Us All!” for a reason. It’s not about specific documents or the so-called “national security state,” and Poitras’ opinion of the U.S. and U.K. governments are secondary to Snowden’s story and the reaction to it. Along those lines, Poitras doesn’t always show Snowden in a favorable light because, amazingly, the movie isn’t a Snowden hagiography. In a weird way, it wasn’t at all offensive to me, unlike so many misleading and clickbait NSA articles had been from a journalistic point of view. Needless to say, my experience watching this movie was vastly (and perniciously?) different than reading the cavalcade of articles for two years running.
The first half-hour of the movie centered around Snowden’s initial encrypted conversations with Poitras, including Snowden’s infamous accusation that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied to Congress about what NSA had been collecting. Brief aside: I’ve said from the beginning that Clapper’s response was hamfisted and indefensible. If his intention was to keep NSA’s metadata program secret, he should’ve simply replied, “Any discussion of what NSA is or isn’t doing is classified.” Or similar. There would’ve been negative repercussions and lots of parsing of that response, but far fewer repercussions than outright denying it.
Anyway, this was all set-up for an hour of what was some of the most gripping documentary footage I’ve seen perhaps since Errol Morris’ The Fog of War.
The middle hour of the movie takes place almost exclusively in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room with Glenn Greenwald, Ewen Macaskill and Laura Poitras prior to and following Snowden’s decision to go public. This was the analogue sequence of the David Ferry hotel room scene from JFK, without the coked-up performances.
While a noticeably and understandably jumpy Snowden described NSA programs like Stellar Wind and XKeyscore, he’s interrupted first by a ringing phone. Who is it? Oh, just room service checking on the quality of their meals. But… is it? (This is what we’re led to believe. And, dramatically speaking, it works.) Then a totally random fire alarm went off. Talking over the noise, Snowden called the front desk and was told that the hotel was repairing the system. The alarm stopped. Snowden continued, then was interrupted again by the fire alarm. Greenwald was barely containing his stoicism, his eyes as big as saucers, and I imagine he was already writing his first article about Verizon in his head.
Then Snowden asked to check out Greenwald’s laptop to be sure it’s secure. After all, Greenwald was already in possession of the Snowden cache — a fact Poitras suspiciously left out of the movie for some reason. Greenwald admitted his technical deficiencies, which prompted me to say out loud, “The author of the biggest tech stories in the last decade.” Snowden indirectly scolded Greenwald for not swapping out his memory stick and just leaving the same one in his laptop in perpetuity. This was when Snowden draped a red hoodie or blanket over both his head and the laptop while he futzed with Greenwald’s laptop. Greenwald asked if this was to protect himself against visual surveillance.
This hoodie affair was one of those moments in which I believe Poitras might’ve been commenting on Snowden’s character. In this case: wow, he’s paranoid. How would NSA know ahead of time where Snowden was going to hide out, allowing agents to install video cameras in, presumably, the headboard of the bed, which was the only camera placement that would’ve been able to see the laptop screen? And besides, Snowden later mentioned that NSA can activate any telephone handset remotely, even if the phone is in its cradle. Why so paranoid about visual surveillance, and not the clearly operative telephone on the nightstand?
At one point, Snowden debated whether to go public. Here Poitras showed Greenwald acting as, basically, Snowden’s media adviser, offering his source advice about the press’s and public’s reactions to Snowden’s intentions and actions. This confirmed what we suspected all along: that Greenwald wasn’t so much a reporter, but a media flack for Snowden, prohibiting him from being objective about Snowden’s intentions or his honesty.
From there, it’s the bombshell news cycle we all followed back in June, 2013, and all of the familiar TV news anchors uncritically repeating Greenwald’s reporting. Meanwhile, Snowden was scheduled to meet with the South China Morning Post where, for some reason, he divulged more classified information, including exclusive details about how NSA apparently hacked Tsinghua University.
For some reason, Poitras lingered on Snowden’s mirror preening prior to the meeting — Snowden fussing with his suit jacket and generously moosing his hair, at one point growing frustrated with a stubborn cowlick, prompting him to yell, “Fuck!” It’s a rather long sequence for what it was, which raises the question: why? Was Poitras trying to tell us something very specific about Snowden’s personality? We don’t know for sure, but it made Snowden look narcissistic and superficial.
The film moved on to the most ludicrous chapter of the story. In August of that year, The Guardian‘s editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger, claimed that GCHQ goons forced his staffers to destroy several Macbooks that contained the U.K. bureau’s copy of the Snowden documents. Mysteriously, at the time, I noticed that the parts weren’t Macbook parts at all but, in fact, PC components from an old mid-2000s desktop computer. Why the deception? Did The Guardian pull a switheroo on the GCHQ? Did the computer smash-up occur at all? Questions for another time. This story ran concurrently with the story of Greenwald’s husband, David Miranda, being detained at London’s Heathrow airport after apparently transporting Snowden documents to and from Laura Poitras in Germany. This was another story that weirdly morphed from one thing to another during that week. Gratefully, Poitras spent only a few seconds on each story. Had she repeated The Guardian‘s Macbook claim, I’m not sure how I would’ve felt about the movie at that point. But she didn’t.
The documentary concluded in Moscow where the gang reconvened. During their meeting, Greenwald revealed to Snowden and that there’s a second leaker. A second Snowden. Instead of describing the new information out loud, Greenwald jotted down notes to Snowden. One page contained the word “drones.” Another pages said “kill list.” Another page showed a hastily-drawn flow chart. In the top-most square on the chart: the acronym “POTUS.” When the movie first premiered the so-called “secret kill list” was new news, so this probably shocked the hell out of Snowden supporters — that President Obama personally greenlit drone attacks against targets on a list. Regardless of the details, this was another killer sequence loaded with tension, mystery, irony and over-the-top paranoia. Irony in that the scene took place in Moscow in a room that everyone assumed had been bugged. It’s Russia. Snowden fled the evil U.S. to, of all places, Russia, where he and Greenwald couldn’t openly carry on a private discussion — a discussion about a topic that would be public knowledge in a matter of days, if not hours, anyway.
I expected Citizenfour to infuraite me. It was quite the opposite experience. The film pulled back the curtain on a topic I heavily covered for a solid year, risking my reputation among my friends on the left and even driving away some of my readers. But it vindicated many of my observations then and now. For instance, Snowden’s language was loaded with carefully-placed weasel-words like “could,” as in, “NSA could do [fill in the black].” Not “is,” but “could,” meaning the government has the capability to overreach, but Snowden never quite admitted that it was.
If I have to name one gripe, it’d have to be the soundtrack. The material itself was compelling enough that it didn’t need an almost constant low droning sound in the background. After a half-hour or so, it ceased to be tension-building and was just annoying.
Did Citizenfour deserve the Oscar? I thought Life Itself, about Roger Ebert, should’ve won but it wasn’t even nominated. I haven’t seen Virunga yet. When I do, I could change my mind, but in and of itself, there’s no reason why Citizenfour shouldn’t have won. I can’t truthfully say it was the best documentary since I haven’t seen the others. But it was good. Damn good. And even if you’re like me — even if you’re contemptuous of the print reporting on the story, Citizenfour is worth watching if only to understand who this Snowden character really is, and to experience Poitras’ obvious talent as a documentarian.
My score: A-
Adding… Greenwald, for all of his flaws, can speak Portuguese as fluently and as continuously as he speaks English. During a press conference in Brazil, shown in Citizenfour, Greenwald was just as much of a motormouth with his second language as he is with his first. I was once again impressed.