The Shock and Awe of Citizenfour

Monday, February 23, 2015


By: Will Wellington

         The meaning of a sign is the response to it. Over the course of the 114 minutes that compriseCitizenfour, Laura Poitras’ new documentary on Edward Snowden and the surveillance state, I sank lower and lower in my seat with an ominous cloud gathering about my cranium. I may have even thrown a hand over my brow like some melancholy dane, and I’m sure I heaved a few bulk-shattering sighs both piteous and profound. As I slunk out of the theatre, face grimly set, trading somber glances with my fellow viewers—nay, witnesses—I solemnly swore to change my life.

         In 2013, Laura Poitras—a documentarian best known for My Country, My Country andThe Oath, two major critiques of American foreign policy post-9/11—was one of a handful of journalists to receive encrypted missives from the mysteriously-named Citizen Four. These messages hinted at dark revelations about American surveillance programs. Intercut with moody, ambient shots of data storage facilities, Poitras renders the receipt of these transmissions in tense, glacially-paced fashion. A tumble of characters indicates the scrambling and unscrambling of the encrypted emails. Poitras' questions crawl across the screen; Citizen Four’s responses appear in a flash. The haunting soundscapes of Nine Inch Nails ratchet up the dread, sonically linking Citizenfour to another cyber-epic of the twenty-first century: David Fincher’s The Social Network.

         Unlike The Social Network, however, Citizenfour is blessed with an immediately and immensely compelling hero. Soon Poitras, along with Glenn Greenwald and a couple more journalists, flock to Hong Kong where, in a small hotel room, they finally meet the elusive Citizen Four himself. His name is Edward Snowden. He’s handsome, but not too handsome. He’s modest. He’s immensely articulate, stunningly bright, and refreshingly direct. The revelations that follow, detailing the sweeping surveillance of American citizens’ personal metadata, are ones with which many will be already familiar, although the scope of them still shocks. The intimate chronicle of those revelations, however, circumscribed by the walls of a small rented room, proves riveting. Poitras' footage is electrifying. Critics suggest Snowden’s actions aren’t wholly virtuous, and those concerns need to be aired and addressed. But for the duration of Citizenfour, his monumental deeds take on a distinctly heroic flavour. Snowden’s ongoing insistence on distancing himself from his allegations only consolidates his mythic image. As focus shifts in the film’s final third away from Snowden, one can’t help but feel disappointed.

         The meaning of a sign is the response to it, and the meaning of Citizenfour remains to be seen. I certainly felt, filing out of the cinema, that this movie was a life-changer. Somewhat ruefully, then, I must report that in the intervening months I have not changed my life. I haven’t tossed out my debit cards or my cellphone. I haven’t purchased a paper shredder. I haven’t unplugged from Zuckerberg’s vast social network, despite Facebook’s newly intrusive Terms of Service that arrived like a particularly ill-considered Christmas gift.

         In fact, the negligible cultural impact of the Snowden revelations seldom ceases to amaze me, confirming Slavoj Žižek’s cynical theory of ideology: They know it, but they do it anyway. But while it may not have burned for very long, I can’t deny the fire that this movie lit within me on a cold winter night.

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