Edward Snowden's breath is getting heavier. He's sprawled out on a bed of luxe white hotel pillows, but appears the opposite of relaxed. His eyes are fixed on the television behind frameless glasses. Glenn Greenwald is on the news, giving an interview. Greenwald had been in the same hotel room himself earlier, but now he's on CNN answering questions about the NSA intel he has just made public via Snowden, a former employee of the National Security Agency. Snowden's chest rises and falls and rises and falls like he's just run a race. He appears nervous, excited, and most of all, amused.
The power of director Laura Poitras' new film, CitizenFour, is in these intimate wordless glimpses at the body language of the 29-year-old, just after he's risked a great deal in the name of revealing injustice. The film largely chronicles in vivid detail the 8-day period in June 2013 at Hong Kong's Mira Hotel, where Snowden debriefed journalists Greenwald (previously a blogger for Salon) and Ewen MacAskill (a reporter for The Guardian) on the massive secret surveillance program being run by the National Security Agency. "I will be in the corner of the restaurant with a rubix cube, ask me the hours of the restaurant" Snowden had told Poitras via an encrypted email, when suggesting the collaboration in Hong Kong. They reportedly communicated for five months before she even knew his name; 'CitizenFour' is the secret alias under which Snowden initially reached out.
The historical moments that make up CitizenFour are the kind rarely captured on film -- and so the whole thing plays out kind of like a combination between scripted '76 Watergate film All The President's Men and a futuristic sci-fi drama, but it's entirely real. We see everything from the moment Snowden reveals his identity to MacAskill, to the point when he guides the two reporters through his hard drive of secret NSA documents. We see Snowden walking Greenwald through how to encrypt email. We see him chatting on his laptop with his girlfriend after the FBI has started looking for him, unsure of what's to come in the following hours and days. We observe Glenn Greenwald's journalistic trajectory on the story, of processing what's been leaked to him, and boiling it into stories about the documents versus stories about Snowden.
"I'll come out, just to go, 'Hey, you know, this is—this is not a question of somebody skulking around in the shadows," says Snowden, a skeptic of celebrity and mainstream media narratives, as he thinks out loud about whether to remain anonymous or out himself from the get-go. "These are public issues. These are not my issues. You know, these are everybody’s issues. And I’m not afraid of you. You know, you’re not going to bully me into silence like you’ve done to everybody else."
Poitras' influence over this film can't be overstated -- not just from a cinematic perspective but as an investigative reporter as well. She is reporting the story of Snowden and Greenwald's meeting, but she is also very much part of the story, too. "Everything about this film is kind of looped in on itself and that's very much why it was necessary that the film have a subjective voice," Poitras said in an interview during the New York Film Festival, "so that the audience knows that I'm not an outsider, I'm also a participant in the events that are unfolding." It's a film about "the motivation and the people and the risks, but also very much about the act of journalism," she said in another interview this week.
For Poitras, Citizen Four is the third in a trilogy on the War on Terror and 9/11, which also included her films My Country, My Country covering the Iraq War and The Oath reporting on the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The most powerful scene of the third film might be the very last one. It's July 2014 in Moscow, where Poitras and Greenwald go to visit Snowden. There, Snowden has been living with his longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills, after Russia gave him a three-year residency permit. The fact that Snowden is living with his girlfriend is one of the film's biggest reveals -- that he's living a considerably pleasant life with his partner, despite everything. At this meeting, what Greenwald wants to reveal to Snowden, not even the camera can fully know.They pass messages on pieces of paper, scribbling them down and passing the around, raising eyebrows and body language communicating disbelief. "That's fucking ridiculous," Snowden says to Greenwald, and then they rip everything up. The message is unclear, but seems to involve another whistleblower story, larger and more next-level than this one. Indeed, it seems the biggest revelation and the true impacts of CitizenFour are yet to be felt, but it undoubtedly is rewiring the narrative surrounding whistleblowers, and the potential for future whistleblowers to surface.
It's hard to believe in the things we can't always see: corrupt political systems, widespread social injustice, the looming threat of climate change. Even if we believe in them, it's hard to remember them daily.The NSA's massive breaches of civil liberties and the urgent threats of their global surveillance system are indeed hard to visualize, hard to process. We see endless scrolling feeds of news reports telling us that the government is watching our every move. That we all live in public whether we want to or not; we can resist and resist but our metadata betrays us, our linkable footprints gives us away. We know it's the truth, but when do we start believing in the extent of its damage? When you're staring at panoramic shots of yellow cranes and sandy hills at a construction site in Bluffdale, Utah, as the NSA is building its big secret spy center, a/k/a the Utah Data Center, where billions of emails and phone calls are now stored? When you're confronted with an image of the Guardian's staff, in the basement of their offices, being forced to destroy Snowden's hard drives with power drills as the UK government spy agency GCHQ watches? Poitras' film gives us these scenes and more, a nuanced and powerful look at the surveillance apparatus responsible for one of the greatest tools of governmental oppression in U.S. history.