CITIZENFOUR by Laura Poitras

Directed by Laura Poitras
Official release: October 24, 2014
Screening: Landmark Theaters, Embarcadero Center Cinema
October 23, 2014, 9:45 p.m. 
Watch trailer here

Every once in a while, I have to explain to someone who Edward Snowden is and/or what the NSA (National Security Agency) is. This shouldn’t be. If you require such an explanation, please go see CITIZENFOUR immediately. Consider it your duty as a human being and as an American citizen.

CITIZENFOUR tells the true story of Edward Snowden, the Booz Allen Hamilton/NSA employee upon whose shoulders rested the weight of sinister government secrets too heavy to bear. In June of 2013, Snowden disappeared from his job, his home, his country, and his entire life to seek the asylum he needed to be able to blow the whistle on the world's largest mass surveillance program, conducted by a branch of the U.S. Government. For those of you who were paying attention back then, the importance of this event shouldn't be hard to remember—it dominated the news for quite some time. For the rest of you, the film puts it all in a neat, clean little box for you to digest in a couple of hours, and it even sweetens the deal with intrigue, tension, and the nervous, precarious humor of defying a clandestine governmental behemoth, reminiscing of Cold-War-era spy movies.

The world-changing revelations brought to us at immense personal risk by Snowden have tragically faded from the forefront of our national and international political conversations both before any resolution could take place and before CITIZENFOUR had time to bring another swell of awareness to the government's citizen-snooping program, but it was good to see the packed theater and the vibrancy of expression from the audience—presumably full of political buffs—contrasting sharply with this absence of major media focus. Though this film was an end-to-end spine-chiller with its absurdly dire revelations, its unrelenting sense of impending danger, and its lines between paranoia and prudence so fuzzy as to be funny, the scariest parts took place off the screen: the dual realizations of what's actually happening in our government and of how soon the general public seems to have shelved the discussion that Snowden created about it.

CITIZENFOUR is named for the code name that started this phenomenon. The film opens with a shot of a cryptic, plain-text Internet conversation between “CITIZENFOUR” and a contact, not unlike the beginning of The Matrix. Also like The Matrix, the film is revealed to be about the powers controlling your life that you didn't know existed. It develops into code language, secret meetings, and discussion of encryption protocols, culminates in a meeting between a world-famous journalist (Glen Greenwald of The Guardian) and his source in a Hong Kong hotel room, and ends with a what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it feeling of truncated finality. 

Halfway through, Snowden sees it fit to wear a sheet over his head while he inputs a password on his computer just to ensure that Greenwald and his associates cannot visually collect it—it would be catastrophic if it could be coerced out of them later. This tension is maintained throughout, becoming at times so unbelievable as to elicit raucous laughter. An example: “That's ridiculous,” Snowden says, reading a note scribbled rather than spoken by Greenwald to avoid audio detection. His expression is melted into smugly cynical yet shocked disgust. For a moment, the cinema's speakers can't compete with the uncomfortable hilarity of not knowing what was revealed. The note, eventually displayed, explains that 1.2 million people have been placed at some stage of the NSA's watch list. An entire subsequent paper-based conversation follows suit, written rather than spoken. What's so unique about this morbid humor is that it jumps out of the screen and into your life as it becomes clear that these realities now apply to all of us. As Snowden unplugs the hotel phone in case it's bugged, loses his train of thought when a fire alarm is tested, and is visibly bothered when discovering an unaccounted-for SD card inside Greenwald's computer, his warnings about how surveillance is stifling us reverberate. “People are careful about what they type into search engines,” he says.

What you should get out of this film is not the thrill of Snowden's wily evasion of corrupt authority. It's not the emotional drama of his choice to endanger his life and abandon his family for the sake of leaking this information. It's the sheer scope of what he found out, and the brutally real sense that it is happening to you right now. You will watch as government officials tell bold lies under oath and face no consequences. You will listen as your lack of ability to avoid being spied on is explained in detail. As Snowden says, “It all comes down to state power versus people's ability to meaningfully oppose this power,” and the latter is beginning to look anemic.

It's hard to be sure if it's a relief or if it's more frightening still that we're allowed to talk about this in the open. A more closed society would never allow critique of its government on this scale, but does this mean that we still have some kind of meaningful liberty that has escaped the clutches of our power-mad government, or does it mean that we have so little that it doesn't actually matter whether we're aware of it or not?

CITIZENFOUR does not answer this question, but at least it's asking.

Justin Quirici
Nomadic Press
Quirici is a writer and a wanderer, a student of consciousness and of communication, and a global citizen.