The controversy surrounding Edward Snowden and his whistleblowing activities is arguably one of the most important events of the 21st century. Exposing the illegal wiretapping practices of the US National Security Agency (NSA) and other intelligence agencies, Snowden showed the true nature of modern government. Which then led to having himself declared an enemy of the States, hiding out in Russia as well as Hong Kong.
The documentary CitizenFour focuses on this enigmatic individual. In January 2013, Laura Poitras received an encrypted e-mail from a stranger who called himself Citizen Four, offering her inside information. Poitras had already been working for several years on a film about monitoring programs in the US, programs which were a result of the September 11 attacks. In June 2013, accompanied by investigative journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen Askhill, she went to Hong Kong with her camera. What follows are several meetings; the recordings gained from the meetings form the basis of the film.
As a subject, Poitas is almost as enigmatic as Snowden. She is a mysterious character in her own movie, heard more than she is seen. She has been a large part of the exposure of many of the NSA secrets, from Iraq to Guantánamo. Since the camera is all under the direction of Poitas, CitizenFour is less about the disclosures from Snowden, but more how they fold out for Poitas. However, this documentary does uncover some of the psyche of Snowden, a figure often attacked or admired. In CitizenFour he comes across as sincere and calm in the eye of the storm, yet also becoming emotional when acknowledging the toll his exposures have taken on his family and girlfriend.
Given how controversial these issues have been, CitizenFour is surprisingly quiet, and simply spells out the disclosures in a calm, efficient way, yet with a undercurrent of sinister nervousness. Although the subject is dramatic, the soundtrack stays away from the gimmicks of action-films, instead relying on a digital ‘Social Network-esque’ simmer.