Perhaps the most surprising thing about the new documentary “Citizenfour” is that it does not require that the viewer have a positive opinion of its subject, the highly controversial NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, in order to be effective and vital. Make no mistake, the film hardly criticizes or even questions the ethics of Snowden’s extensively publicized actions. Given Snowden handpicked filmmaker Laura Poitras to document the initial leak of classified government reports that he carried out with journalist Glenn Greenwald, the fact that “Citizenfour” paints him as a man with righteous intentions was to be expected. But to Poitras’ great credit, the film transcends partisan lines, not simply functioning as another reiteration of the NSA’s unprecedented level of surveillance over American citizens. It also serves as an intimate, fly-on-the-wall view of history in the making. “Citizenfour” offers unparalleled access into the breaking of perhaps the biggest news story of 2013, in virtually real-time, providing keen insight into the unique challenges and possibilities of journalism in the contemporary digital age.
Much of the criticism directed at Snowden by the more authoritarian wings of both American political parties has concerned how, precisely, he went about exposing the information he uncovered on the far reach of the NSA’s surveillance program—which is to say, that he chose to leak the information directly to the public rather than to key political representatives. Poitras’ documentary is not concerned with exploring whether or not Snowden had a viable release alternative, but rather, with meticulously detailing the release method he selected. Poitras chronicles her initial anonymous, encrypted communications with an individual called “Citizenfour,” who promised major revelations about U.S. government spying. She shows us her first meeting with the unmasked Snowden in the Hong Kong hotel room where he and Greenwald would shortly thereafter leak the crucial documents. She continues to film the following days, when Snowden dealt with the ramifications of the inevitable exposure of his identity. Whatever one’s opinion of the man—I personally have reservations about the way he chose to release this information—his actions come across as extremely deliberate and thoroughly considered, based on genuine beliefs in the public’s right to know and in the necessity of Internet privacy, as opposed to any fame-seeking impulse. Of course, as is the case with any documentary, the film offers a mediated portrait of Snowden, but Poitras focus on the minutiae gives the viewer a sense that she is committed to honesty.
Even if one disagrees with Snowden’s methods and believes that the ongoing NSA surveillance program serves Americans’ best interests, curbing potential terrorist threats, it is undeniable that information concerning classified government operations will increasingly be revealed in whistleblower situations like this one. (In fact, in a cliffhanger ending, the film alludes to the possibility of a second NSA leaker.) Thus, “Citizenfour” also stands an important early account of how journalism is being conducted in the 21st century. As Snowden, Greenwald, and The Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill wrestle over precisely what information to release and when to release it, one gets the sense that they are in the process of constructing a new ethical rubric for reporting in an age of immense executive branch control. Far from just a rehashing of cable news headlines from the past year, “Citizenfour” expounds upon Snowden’s motives and actions, critically probing into the implications of these for future generations of whistleblowers and journalists.
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