#NYFF52, Citizenfour: Ed Snowden Close Up and Watched Over

October 13, 2014 | Rhett Jones

ANIMAL will be bringing you continuing coverage from The New York Film Festival, which rans Sep 26 – Oct 12 at Film Society of Lincoln Center. Citizenfour will be released on October 24th in New York.

Citizenfour, the latest documentary by Laura Poitras, attempts to give us an overview of the NSA’s shocking invasions into citizen’s privacy, while pulling off a more personal profile of Edward Snowden. For the most part she succeeds by not trying to overstuff the film with facts and taking a slow, vérité approach to the controversial whistle-blower.

Poitras was the first journalist on the Snowden story, after being contacted anonymously by a mysterious man who claimed to have very sensitive government secrets. After installing the required encryption software for communication, Poitras spoke to the source who wanted her to come to Hong Kong. When she arrived, she met a nerdy young man who had thousands of classified documents about the efforts of the NSA to capture “all the communications” of everyone on the planet.

Citizenfour is the third part in a trilogy about American policies post-9/11. She previously embedded in Iraq and profiled Osama Bin Laden’s former driver. After those films, Poitras found herself on a watch-list and was intensely questioned whenever she traveled. Those experiences led to her making a film about government surveillance. When Snowden contacted her, she had finally found her focal point. Poitras and Glenn Greenwald proceeded to be Snowden’s trusted team for leaking all the incendiary documents he stole while working as a contractor for the NSA.

Since we already know much of what’s revealed by the documents, Poitras decides to keep her focus on giving an overview of the situation, and switching gears to the quiet moments with Snowden in Hong Kong. In the days leading up to his clandestine flight to Moscow, where he was granted temporary asylum, Snowden emphasized that he wanted to be an example for future whistle-blowers.

Chelsea Manning’s brutal treatment by the U.S. government had frightened many people and he wanted to convey that one must not be afraid. He has a good poker-face, but Poitras approach — just filming without comment — reveals a man who is fully aware of the forces that are about to come down on him. He may be willing to stand up for what he believes in, but he is extremely scared.

Snowden comes across as far more human than he ever could when he gives his prepared statements. While he seems extremely well-prepared at first, the facade cracks when it’s time to leave his hotel and the press are clamoring to find him. He forgot to bring a short guard for his razor, and his hair won’t slick back. He looks like Snowden no matter what, and we get the impression that we’re seeing the man himself for the first time. He’s just a nervous guy who’s probably in over his head.

The story is far from over. Snowden is still in exile and is uncertain what’s next, little has changed policy-wise and there are many leaks to come from the documents. Poitras’ solution for an ending is to reveal that Lindsey Mills, the long time girlfriend who had to be left behind, moved to Moscow in July of this year to live with Snowden. Visiting him in Russia, Greenwald communicates with a healthier-looking, Snowden by writing any sensitive material on paper — we only see blurry snatches because the information could reveal sensitive info. The takeaway is that Snowden has a huge smile on his face and Greenwald has a new source. A new life with his loved ones has started and he has accomplished his task of informing the people while inspiring future whistle-blowers.

During the films premiere in New York, Greenwald and Poitras were separately publishing two new stories on the Intercept. The timing was gangster; the message was clear — this is just the beginning.

CHEAT SHEET: If you don’t manage to get tickets to the NYFF and you need to talk about it in conversation, here’s what to say:

–“Snowden’s motivations are way more believable when you just see him being a normal guy.”
–“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”