Remember back in the summer of 2013 when the Edward Snowden case was breaking, and we kept seeing that same picture of Snowden over and over again on all the news channels and all the websites? The Onion even made a joke about it (“Nation Demands New Photograph of Edward Snowden”). It wasn’t just that we were tired of that picture; it was that the man at the center of the story seemed to be an enigma. Who was this guy? All that we had to go on was a couple of minutes of interview footage of Snowden in conversation with Glenn Greenwald, shot by documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras in the Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden and Greenwald broke the story of the NSA wiretaps.
Poitras has now released a two-hour long film, Citizenfour, consisting mostly of the conversations between Snowden and Greenwald that culminated in that interview. The novelty of the film lies in its ability to show us the Edward Snowden that we’ve been denied. We see him talking frankly about his reasons for blowing the whistle on the NSA. We see him express concern about what effects his actions will have on his friends and loved ones. We’re invited to regard him as he sits on the bed of his hotel room and as he stands shaving in front of the bathroom mirror. He’s amazingly smart and articulate and well-spoken—quiet but fierce. We’re made to notice how lanky he is, and how he spends most of that week in the hotel room wearing a white cotton undershirt. The footage reveals other, smaller details, too, like the mole that stands out on Snowden’s neck.
Watching Citizenfour is like watching footage of a rare animal in the wild, one that is nearly impossible to catch on camera. But even if Snowden is a rare beast that’s fascinating to watch, is he a commanding enough presence to hold our attention for two hours? He himself says that he doesn’t want his own personality to interfere with the real story—that is, the NSA’s abuse of its power. This, however, is the paradox of Citizenfour. As much as it tries to be a movie about an issue instead of a portrait of a single figure, it can’t help but make Snowden its star attraction, and as a star he lacks luster. So while Citizenfour is an undeniably valuable piece of documentary footage (and it’s impossible not to be engrossed by it, simply because the events it depicts are so astonishing), it doesn’t always make for great cinema, and it relies heavily on the assumption that we already know (and care) about this subject going in—otherwise its scenes of people talking in hotel rooms aren’t likely to hold our attention. The power of those scenes and those conversations relies upon a context that we as informed audience members supply, and in that sense the film doesn’t feel like much of an accomplishment. In only one scene does Poitras capture a moment that feels genuinely tense: the hotel fire alarm goes off while Snowden and Greenwald are in the middle of strategizing, and they look around at each other, frozen with fear and confusion, uncertain about what to do. For that brief moment, Citizenfour makes us feel the paranoia that it otherwise talks to us about.