Ever since its premiere at the New York Film Festival, CITIZENFOUR has kept audienced rapt, the attention rivaled only by that earned by the documentary’s subject, Edward Snowden, himself. This bold new entry in nonfiction has swept up numerous awards, firmly establishing it as a promising contender for the Oscars.
Directed by Laura Poitras, CITIZENFOUR follows Edward Snowden’s journey from trusted NSA subcontractor to hunted whistleblower.
The film dominated festival runs in the U.S. and abroad. Last week it took Best Documentary at the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs). It also took home the award for Best Documentary at other prestigious organizations and critics groups this past fall, including the IDA Documentary Awards, Gotham Awards, and the New York Film Critics Circle. Poitras also received the Directors Guild of America's award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary earlier this month, a strong indication the feature is a top contender come Oscar Sunday.
“Laura Poitras’s film about National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden (and much else besides) is more than just an unsettling bulletin from the blurry front lines of American intelligence’s surveillance campaign. It’s a stirring, sophisticated work of cinema verité, a virtuoso feat of high-tension interview editing,”
Far too many documentaries are judged on the strength of their advocacy: if people agree with what they hear about global warming or processed food or bears, it’s a good movie. Certainly no one is going to be left feeling very happy about what CITIZENFOUR has to say about government abuse of power, but Laura Poitras’s film about National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden (and much else besides) is more than just an unsettling bulletin from the blurry front lines of American intelligence’s surveillance campaign. It’s a stirring, sophisticated work of cinema verité, a virtuoso feat of high-tension interview editing, a jaw-dropping act of civil disobedience, a riveting psychological record of an informant-journalist encounter, a space-time-collapsing ride into the modern technological matrix, and maybe most viscerally, an instant classic of paranoid cinema.
The bare facts it presents are easy to grasp, though no less incredible. In early 2013, Poitras was approached by Snowden to serve as a conduit for his data-dump of revelations from the most secret echelons of the NSA. A relationship of trust developed and when the filmmaker finally met Snowden face-to-face that summer, she brought her camera along. We learn about the indiscriminate, illegal dragnet of U.S. government surveillance through both CITIZENFOUR’s extended centerpiece—mostly Poitras, journalist Glenn Greenwald, and Snowden sequestered in a Hong Kong hotel room—and its bookended clips from lectures and press conferences.
While much of what Snowden talks about had previously been aired, Poitras’s nonfiction thriller restores the shock of the new to his exposé through its antsy getting-to-know-you build-up and the palpable sense of danger as the clock ticks, Snowden’s absence back home is detected, and Greenwald begins publishing articles about the revelations. It’s claustrophobic in this lived-in room, but the entire world comes to feel the same way—as if the NSA has been lifting the roofs off houses across the country and peeking right in. When the phone rings, you can feel everyone in the room looking at one another apprehensively; when the hotel’s fire alarm goes off, you wonder if someone, somewhere made it happen who does not mean well.