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D: Laura Poitras / 114m

Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Ewen MacAskill, Jacob Appelbaum, Julian Assange, Jeremy Scahill, Ben Wizner

In January 2013, while preparing to make the third in a series of documentaries looking at the US government’s continued attempts to restrict freedom of information and human rights – the other two movies are My Country, My Country (2006) and The Oath (2010) – director Laura Poitras was contacted by someone using encrypted e-mails.  The sender, who called themselves CITIZENFOUR, was very cautious in their approach but said they had access to files that proved the National Security Agency (NSA) was deliberately collecting and storing the e-mails, telephone calls, mobile (cell) phone calls and texts of millions of Americans through back door links to service providers such as AT&T.  Realising the importance of this information, she and the (then) anonymous contact agreed to proceed slowly so as to gain each other’s trust, and to avoid any intervention by the NSA.

Eventually, in June 2013, they agreed to meet in a hotel in Hong Kong.  Poitras took her camera along and it was there that she met Edward Snowden, a twenty-nine year old “infrastructure analyst” working for the NSA who had become concerned about the way in which the NSA’s surveillance programmes were being used.  Over the course of eight days, during which Snowden was interviewed by online reporter Glenn Greenwald and Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill, he revealed the extent of the NSA’s illegal activities, its joint operations with other countries such as the UK, and the ways in which it carried out these activities.  With Snowden’s approval, Greenwald and MacAskill began to publish copies of files that he provided, and on June 9, Snowden made his identity public.

Shortly after, Snowden’s passport was revoked by US officials, and while the world’s media began to learn of the extent of the NSA’s intrusion into not only the lives of every American but the lives of millions of foreign nationals as well, Snowden sought a country that would give him asylum.  Thanks to the efforts of WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange, Snowden was able to leave Hong Kong, and after a time spent in the “no man’s land” of the international lounge at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, he was granted a year’s temporary asylum in Russia (which has been extended by another three years).  Meanwhile, the files he downloaded and made available to Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill continue to be published by the world’s media.


The bulk of Laura Poitras’ fascinating and compelling documentary is taken up by the extended interview with Edward Snowden, in which he lays out the extent of the NSA’s “involvement” in the daily lives of every single American who uses a computer, a mobile phone,  and/or a telephone.  Even though we know the story by now – and even if we’re not aware of all the details – it’s still an intensely dramatic moment when Snowden reveals just how much of an intrusion is being carried out.  In a sense, the sheer size and scope of it all is mind-boggling, but it’s a tribute to Snowden’s casual intelligence that he presents the facts as concisely and eloquently as he does.  Anyone watching CITIZENFOUR will be left in no doubt that the NSA has been – and continues to – work illegally in the name of homeland security and the prevention of future terrorism on US soil.

Do the ends justify the means?  If it’s illegal in the first place, then clearly not.  But what CITIZENFOUR does so effectively is to show just how pervasive the NSA’s approach really is, how it liaises with other countries’ intelligence networks such as the  UK’s GCHQ, Australia’s ASD and Canada’s CSEC, and how even world leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel are not immune from being targeted.  With this in mind you have to question the reasoning behind the NSA’s practices and if anything will change in the long-term (most likely not) but as a document of record the movie is an important addition to the continuing struggle to retain our civil liberties wherever we are in the world.  It’s important for us to know what our leaders are doing, and it’s equally important that we don’t just accept their excuse that it’s “in the national interest”, especially when our basic right to privacy is being treated so dismissively.

Thanks to Poitras, Snowden’s whistleblowing carries greater weight by being captured at the point at which he had decided to come out of the shadows.  He’s a quietly spoken but still impassioned man who comes across as committed, focused, and fully aware of the potential downfalls of his actions.  As it becomes clear just how long he’s been wrestling with the idea of exposing the NSA and its practices, the enormity of his decision is made all the more impressive.  And when his ACLU lawyer, Ben Wizner, reveals that Snowden – if he returns to the US – would be charged under the Espionage Act, which recognises no mitigating circumstances or defence for any actions taken, it becomes even clearer just how much Snowden may have to give up in the future if, as it seems, that future is in another country.  Whatever your thoughts on whether he was right to do what he did or not, his personal integrity is something that can’t be doubted.

With such a huge gift dropped in her lap, Poitras has assembled a riveting, quietly authoritative documentary movie that explains very complex ideas in a simple, convincing manner and which never condescends or dumbs down the issues.  It’s an impressive piece that provokes astonishment, anger, sadness, disgust and horror in equal measure and which should be watched by anyone with an interest in the protection of civil liberties (in whichever country they live in).  With Snowden making it clear just how much these liberties have already been eroded, and with social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter being targeted as well (this review could, in theory, lead to thedullwoodexperiment being added to some kind of watch list), CITIZENFOUR is a timely reminder that those in charge rarely have our best interests in mind when they go about defending us from others.

Rating: 9/10 – Snowden’s sincerity and self-deprecating position is the movie’s trump card, revealing a man with infinitely more integrity than those he worked for; one of the best documentaries of this or any year, CITIZENFOUR is extremely potent and a great example of political reportage.