Citizenfour (2014)

Review #1,177

Director:  Laura Poitras
Plot:  A documentarian and a reporter travel to Hong Kong for the first of many meetings with Edward Snowden.

Genre:  Documentary
Awards:  Won 1 Oscar - Best Documentary Feature
Runtime:  114min
Rating:  PG13 for language
International Sales:  Praxis Films

“We all have a stake in this, this is our country and the balance of power between the citizenry and the government is becoming that of the ruling and the ruled as opposed to actually, you know, the elected and the electorate.”

It's easy to see why this won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature last year.  The Academy often vote for documentaries that are pertinent to issues Americans are grappling with, especially those that reveal and express a certain truth often hidden from public view. 

The issue at hand here is two-fold, interlinked and seldom debated in isolation – the ethics of state surveillance and the morality of whistle-blowing.  The US, for better or worse, largely operates from the notion of freedom, so any infringement to any forms of freedom would surely cause a stir, especially if it comes no less from the American government, of which a stir would then become something infinitely more swirly, like a whirlpool. 

Citizenfour, a documentary centering on Edward Snowden's whistle-blowing activities, was shot in secret in Hong Kong in Snowden's hotel room.  A wanted ‘fugitive’ trying to seek political asylum, Snowden comes across as perfectly normal, like one of us, but realized he has a far greater cause to pursue in the interest of humanity.  His self-sacrificial attitude is inspiring, to say the least.

Directed by Laura Poitras, in a feat of exposé documentary filmmaking that reminds us of the medium’s humanitarian worth, Citizenfour makes a strong anti-National Security Agency claim that the intelligence entity is spying on not just Americans’ communication exchanges, but that of the world, all in the name of protecting their country’s national security. 

The film comes across as technical and dry, with shots of numerous communication exchanges with an informer, and footage of journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill interviewing Snowden.  Unless you are completely invested in the subject matter, it may be difficult for you to be thoroughly entertained. 

Poitras seems only to care about what occurs in her film, rather than how it would rivet the audience.  But to be fair, the circumstances in which she had to shoot her film, and the kind of content she could gather and consolidate were highly dependent on how history would unfold in real-time. 

Citizenfour is a hugely important film, but while many critics have called it “gripping”, operating “with unprecedented urgency”, and a “compelling real-life thriller”, I feel that those are exaggerations.  There’s no shortage of intrigue, but it feels oddly bereft of tension, even of intensity.

Verdict:  Hugely important film about the ethics of state surveillance, but can be too technical and dry, and is only occasionally riveting.   


Click here to go back to Central Station.



Popular Posts