"I HAVE ONLY ONE FEAR in doing all of this," Edward Snowden told journalist Glenn Greenwald in a hotel room in Hong Kong in June of 2013. "That people will see these documents and shrug, that they'll say, 'We assumed this was happening and don't care.' The only thing I'm worried about is that I'll do all this to my life for nothing."
A year and a half later, it's safe to say Snowden didn't do it for nothing. It's now impossible to reset our thinking about our digital communications—to go back to before Snowden showed us how our calls, texts, emails, Google searches, and Facebook posts had been secretly harnessed by the NSA to serve as tools of the Obama administration's security state.
All the same, that's when Laura Poitras' documentary Citizenfour begins: When Snowden first contacted Poitras and Greenwald for assistance in responsibly distributing the damning information he'd painstakingly and conscientiously gathered.
Poitras—now an expatriate in Berlin after suffering constant harassment from the US government—has made several acclaimed documentaries, like The Oath and My Country, My Country. Most people haven't seen them. But just about everybody has seen another film she made: the 12-minute video that introduced the world to Edward Snowden.
That 12-minute video didn't reveal that Poitras was recording far more than a brief interview between Snowden and Greenwald. Having exchanged encrypted communications with Snowden for months, Poitras had earned his trust. Her camera was rolling as Snowden worked with Greenwald and The Guardian's Ewen MacAskill to release the information; her camera was rolling as the jarring revelations kept coming, blasted out through the internet, newspapers, and cable news; her camera was rolling as the sound of Snowden's whistleblowing echoed across the globe.
A big chunk of the striking Citizenfour was shot in Snowden's Hong Kong hotel room, and it's an up-close look at history being made (a seriously up-close look—the hotel room is small). But Poitras doesn't limit her focus: Pulling in NSA whistleblower William Binney, hacktivist Jacob Appelbaum, the NSA's gargantuan Utah data storage facility, and the Obama administration's unprecedented persecution of those who speak out against it, Citizenfour is an overview of where we are and how we got here—a surveillance state so surreal that Snowden feels the need to remind us "it's not science fiction."
But for all its scope, the most memorable moments of Citizenfour are its intimate details.
It's hardly surprising that Snowden worked under a defiant sense of moral obligation, but it's something else to see him chastising Greenwald for security lapses, to see anxiety flash across his face at an unexpected phone call, to see a quick, earnest grin, to hear him crack jokes. (Turns out that Snowden has a gift not only for globetrotting spy tactics but also dry humor: When he drapes himself in a sheet to keep one of his passwords from being seen, he's as aware of how goofy he looks as he is convinced of the sheet's necessity.) And the sharp-eyed Poitras gets in some sly, evocative details, drifting her camera over the novel Snowden's reading (fittingly, it's Cory Doctorow's Homeland), and slipping in two songs by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross—tracks that are more than slightly reminiscent of Reznor and Ross' score for The Social Network.
And we see how the world reacts to Snowden's revelations—Snowden's face, glowing from a Hong Kong Jumbotron; CNN's blustering talking heads, angrily blathering; furious judgments handed down from on high.
"No, I don't think Edward Snowden is a patriot," we see a terse Obama insist. (We're thankfully spared from having to hear Secretary of State John Kerry call Snowden a "confused" man who "has done great damage to his country" and who should "man up and come back to the US.")
It's a moment that, as strongly as any in the film, emphasizes the devastating one-two punch offered by Citizenfour and Greenwald's excellent book, No Place to Hide, which both overlaps Poitras' film and digs deeper. Unencumbered by Poitras' vérité restraint, Greenwald charges forward. After Citizenfour puts us in Snowden's hotel room—and then shows a furious, vulnerable Obama administration branding Snowden a traitor—it's impossible not to recall Greenwald's words in No Place to Hide: That "the true measure of a society's freedom is how it treats its dissidents and other marginalized groups, not how it treats good loyalists."
Citizenfour ends on a disconcerting, apprehensive note—but also one of cautious optimism. That's largely due to the fact that we have yet to see the full repercussions of Snowden's revelations, and we have yet to see if Americans have the spine to ensure that our government ceases its blithe abuses of power. But that sense of disconcerting apprehension is also thanks to Poitras, who—refreshingly, and unlike many documentary filmmakers—resists the temptation to wrap up her film by manufacturing the feeling of a story that's come to a close. "Plot is so relentless," Poitras said in a recent profile in The New Yorker. "It's totally unforgiving, and it also can be simplifying. It can provide resolution where there should be none."