Edward Snowden rose to prominence as a household name in 2013 with startling revelations about spying and surveillance. His disclosure, which captured media attention immediately, was actually planned and executed thanks to a filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald. Poitras documented Snowden’s initial revelation, and the lengthy process of covert communication. Her fascinating documentary “Citizenfour” depicts a behind-the-scenes look at Snowden’s enlightening tell-all, which serves as a captivating glance at journalism as well as government surveillance.
Laura Poitras began receiving emails in Jan. 2013 from an unknown source, identified as Citizen Four. The so-called Citizen Four explained that Poitras was on several watchlists. Citizen Four also provided detailed information regarding the NSA and illicit spying. Previously, Poitras documented data collection in the United States after the Sept. 11 2001 attacks. After months of corresponding covertly, Poitras arranged to meet with the then unknown Citizen Four.
Upon arriving in Hong Kong, Poitras met Edward Snowden, who would soon rise to fame as a prominent whistleblower on US government surveillance. What’s intriguing about “Citizenfour” isn’t the information divulged by Snowden, but rather the process of relaying material to the press. Journalist Glenn Greenwald and reporter Ewen MacAskill joined Poitras and Snowden in Hong Kong, taking notes, interviewing, and creating their stories. Poitras captured their journalistic method as well as the breaking news in real-time, a fascinating behind the scenes look at Snowden’s reveal. There’s a particularly neat scene where the distinctive Snowden attempts to disguise himself, while massive TVs display images of Snowden.
While much of the documentary depicts Snowden, there are bits of interviews and court hearings peppered throughout. Bolstering the project are scenes of Greenwald’s partner being detained at Heathrow Airport after a trip, and a mandatory destruction of certain information by The Guardian. Altogether, the picture is bleak, haunting, and thought-provoking. That surveillance is so easily obtained, unbeknownst to the general public, is frightening. There’s a distinctly Orwellian element to mass data collection. The documentary ends with Snowden safely in Russia, having received asylum. Poitras offers a brief snippet involving drones, though Citizen Four admits he can’t divulge much more. Clearly, Poitras shows that the narrative isn’t over with her film. “Citizenfour” isn’t intended to relay past information, but rather present Snowden’s revelations firsthand, leaving ample room for discussion and thought long after the credits roll.