Ewen MacAskill: What are you... tell me your thoughts, just where you are with that?Edward Snowden: So primary one on that, I think I've expressed it a couple times online, is I feel the modern media has a big focus on personalities.Ewen MacAskill: Totally.Edward Snowden: And I'm a little concerned that the more we focus on that the more they're going to use that as a distraction. I don't necessarily want that to happen, which is why I've consistently said, you know, I'm not the story here.
Edward Snowden, Citizenfour
Privately, there were moments when I worried that we might have put our privileged lives at risk for nothing — that the public would react with indifference, or practiced cynicism, to the revelations.Never have I been so grateful to have been so wrong.Two years on, the difference is profound. In a single month, the N.S.A.’s invasive call-tracking program was declared unlawful by the courts and disowned by Congress. After a White House-appointed oversight board investigation found that this program had not stopped a single terrorist attack, even the president who once defended its propriety and criticized its disclosure has now ordered it terminated.This is the power of an informed public.
It is next to impossible to divide this film from the effect it had, from the process that followed, from the legal consequences of Snowden’s revelations and the debate about whether his actions were justified or not. It is also difficult not to consider the geographic divide here: on the one hand, the European horror and outrage about the transgressions, on the other, the apathy of the dangerous combination of “we already knew but had no proof” and “you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide”. Laura Poitras’ documentary about the process of Snowden revealing what he had collected is potent because it is a celebration of one man’s moral journey – Edward Snowden, in this portrait, is weighed down by an obligation that he feels, and Citizenfour is at its strongest when he outlines his process of figuring out how to share his information, how he struggled with the burden of knowing and thinking that the public should, too. It is a celebration of journalism, as well, because one of the tenants of this film is the idea that this kind of power needs to be mediated, that the responsibility of figuring out how to communicate this to the public lies with someone outside. In that regard, Snowden comes across as profoundly and charmingly anachronistic, unwilling to simply leak the documents he has collected online, he contacts journalists that he trusts and puts all his effort into creating a safe environment in which information can flow freely, and can ultimately reach his target, the outside world. He knows his own shortcomings, the fact that his position skews the perspective and objectivity. This consciousness is what makes him the hero of the film, because it is not just the fact of his decision to take the information and share it, but the effort and consideration that he puts into creating a due process for all of it.
On a purely artistic level, divided from the very real political and social consequences, Citizenfour is absolutely captivating. It follows Edward Snowden, shows him in the hotel room he hides in, shows him grapple with the burden of his knowledge. One of the most effective scenes is the hero, suspecting the worst, hiding under a blanket to instigate his counter-surveillance measures precisely because he knows how capable the forces he is acting against are. There is a bitter, cynical situational comedy here that is even more potent because it is so very realistic. Poitras is the other, almost entirely unseen star of the film, narrating with a haunting voice and being guided through the insights (journalist Green Greenwald is a screen presence, she remains behind the camera, only once reflected in the a mirror) like the public would be, making it clear how much is at stake: the worst possible outcome is not capture, but public apathy. The film oscillates beautifully between Snowden’s role as a public figure and his very personal fears about what will happen to him and those closest in the fallout of his act. His choice to share what he knows is an attempt to protect a wider public, those on the other side of the media reports that start to flicker across hotel television screens towards the later half of the film, but as a cinematic drama, Snowden becomes a captivating hero for his quiet and stubborn willingness to sacrifice himself in the process.
2014, directed by Laura Poitras, starring Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Jacob Appelbaum.