"Citizenfour": Laura Poitras' secret Snowden documentary is electric

A gripping real-life spy thriller about the Snowden-Greenwald meetings got several standing ovations at NY premiere

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published October 13, 2014 6:05PM (EDT)

  (Radius TWC)
(Radius TWC)

As is customary each fall, this year’s New York Film Festival has unveiled any number of buzzed-over new movies, including the world premieres of David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” and the United States premieres of several major Oscar contenders, among them Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” and Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman.” But nothing at NYFF felt quite as consequential (to use the vocabulary word of the moment) as “Citizenfour,” the documentary about Edward Snowden that Laura Poitras made over the last two years, essentially in secret and under severe duress.

There were no celebrities at Friday night’s Lincoln Center premiere of “Citizenfour,” unless you count Glenn Greenwald, the muckraking journalist (and former Salon columnist) made famous – or infamous, in some people’s eyes -- by the Snowden NSA leaks. But the event carried a degree of electrical crackle that no amount of Brangelina could ever provide. I’ll have more to say about the movie itself in due course. (It will opens in limited theatrical release beginning Oct. 24.) For now, let’s say that “Citizenfour” is an urgent, gripping real-life spy story that should be seen by every American, and quite likely by everybody else too. No matter how much you think you know about the Snowden affair, the film provides important new context and surprising new facts, as well as an up-close personal encounter with the 21st-century’s most famous whistleblower.

Of course a film-festival premiere audience is predisposed to like the movie, and I have no doubt that Snowden’s critics will begin the counterattack any day now. But this one was pretty much a smash hit: The audience stood and applauded for two or three minutes over the closing credits, and then did it again during the curtain call for Poitras, Greenwald and the filmmaking team, reaching a crescendo when Edward Snowden’s parents took the stage. (I had been sitting right behind them, as it turned out.) At the post-premiere party, journalists and filmmakers stood around speculating as to whether the Academy could possibly give an Oscar to a movie this contentious – or one that makes the Obama administration look this bad.

That’s all premature, of course – but the possibility is not unreasonable. “Citizenfour” is both an urgent tale torn from recent headlines and a compelling work of cinema, with all the paranoid density and abrupt changes of scenery of a John le Carré novel. Poitras got Snowden’s permission to begin shooting him from the moment of their first cloak-and-dagger rendezvous in a Hong Kong hotel. The film’s heart, lies in those now legendary hotel-room meetings between Snowden, Greenwald, Poitras and Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill, where the scope and significance of the documents Snowden had brought with him from his NSA job in Hawaii began to come clear.

There is indeed some news in “Citizenfour,” including the implication in its final scene – a conversation between Greenwald and Snowden in Moscow, shot just a few weeks ago – that investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill (now a colleague of Greenwald’s at the Intercept) has made contact with another whistleblower in the U.S. intelligence apparatus, a source more highly placed than Snowden. On a more personal note, we also learn that Snowden’s longtime girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, whom he left behind with just a cryptic note when he flew to Hong Kong, has now joined him in Russia. But as Greenwald suggested after the screening, the biggest revelation may be Snowden himself. “I felt like this was really the first time that people got to see who he really is, in an unmediated way, so they could make up their own minds,” Greenwald told the audience. “I always thought that the most powerful part of the story was not going to be the documents or the revelations, as important as those are. It was going to be the power of his story, the acts of this very ordinary young man who decided very consciously to sacrifice his whole life for a political principle.”

There are certainly legitimate grounds to argue that Snowden should not have done what he did (although I don’t happen to agree with them). But many of the arguments raised about Snowden’s personality and probable motivations over the past year or so fall apart when you encounter this composed and highly intelligent young man – who displays a few flashes of I.T.-geek humor, especially when dealing with the un-tech-savvy Greenwald. Snowden comes across as a calm and thoughtful person who has reflected extensively on the path he has chosen and its likely consequences. He’s definitely not a naïve kid or a glory-grabbing narcissist, and any effort to smear him, in retrospect, as a Russian spy is even ludicrous. In the Hong Kong meetings, Snowden is clearly resigned to the likelihood of going to prison, and the idea of seeking refugee status in Russia (or anywhere else) never directly comes up.

So what drove Ed Snowden? You can pretty much boil it down to the fact that the U.S. government has repeatedly lied to the citizens it supposedly serves about many things, but most of all about the level of intense surveillance we’ve all come under since 9/11, without even the pretense of public discussion or legislative debate. As thrilling and chilling as “Citizenfour” is, it’s only one chapter in the public reckoning with the national-security state that is now required. There is also much more to be revealed, I suspect, about Snowden’s cloak-and-dagger escapade after leaving Hong Kong, his dealings with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, and his failed efforts to reach Bolivia or Venezuela. Poitras had almost no contact with Snowden during his weeks trapped in the transit zone at Sheremetyevo Airport, and we see only a brief and tantalizing glimpse of his new life in Moscow. As retired Coast Guard officer Lonnie Snowden, Edward’s father, said from the Lincoln Center stage while clearly struggling to contain his emotions, “The truth is coming and it cannot be stopped.”

"Citizenfour" will open Oct. 24 in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington, with national release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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