Review by-Jarrett Leahy
“We are building the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind.” I wish I could tell you this quotation is from the newest dystopian science fiction blockbuster about to hit the big screen, but, unfortunately, this alarming excerpt is the all too truthful and ominous warning given to us by the documentary Citizenfour. This year’s Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature, Citizenfour is a fascinating and frightful behind-the-scenes look at the largest leak of classified government secrets this country has ever experienced as well as an examination of the man responsible for it, Edward Snowden.
Made in secrecy and directed by one of this generation’s most gifted documentarians, Laura Poitras, Citizenfour is a taut and edgy examination into the mass collection of digital information by the National Security Agency. Benefiting from unprecedented access, Poitras captures, in intimate detail, the events surrounding Edward Snowden’s disquieting revelations about the illegal actions being perpetrated by the U.S. intelligence community. Coming in at just under two hours, the film only gets more and more terrifying as the realization sets in of what exactly our government has been doing on a daily basis under the guise of the 2001 Patriot Act. Not only an account of the Snowden leak, the film also discloses insights from whistle-blower William Binney, a former thirty-year intelligence official in the NSA who resigned in October of 2001 after being outraged at the direction the NSA was taking and their justifications for unlawfully collecting massive amounts of information. A major critic of both the Bush and the Obama administrations and their unconstitutional spying tactics, Binney’s inclusion into Citizenfour adds yet another level of reputability to this documentary and the information it lays out for its viewer.
However, for many, the main attraction of Citizenfour is its look at Edward Snowden. A spineless traitor to some, a courageous whistleblower to others, Snowden has become a polarizing figure worldwide as the ramifications of his actions are still being realized nearly two years later. Utilizing a vast collection of encrypted communications, Poitras shows how Snowden secretly reached out to Glenn Greenwald, columnist for The Guardian newspaper, setting in motion the eventual meeting in a Hong Kong hotel room where, over the course of a week, Snowden methodically explains in great detail the sweeping collection of classified data, revealing a systematic abuse and hijacking of today’s internet and cell phone technology, by not only the U.S. government, but others around the world including Great Britain. The information disclosed also appears to indict a handful of high ranking NSA officials of perjuring themselves while testifying to Congress, as they repeatedly denied, under oath, committing the very acts the evidence in Snowden’s possession exposes.
As a whole, documentary films appear to be the last bastion of investigative reporting, as they are allotted the freedom to show us a more unvarnished look at our world. Unfortunately, the largest flaw I’ve found with many of the political documentaries I’ve watched over the years is, despite good intentions, many of these films are too skewed to one side of the argument or the other, which in turn, alienates half their viewership and muddles the message they are trying to convey. In comparison, the vital component to the overall impact of Citizenfour is its ability to remain neutral. Poitras is aware of the responsibility she has been given to share this story and recognizes that the revelations of Citizenfour are too important to get lost, overshadowed, or dismissed because of perceived political slant.
As our world becomes more and more interconnected and ever reliant upon technology, this is perhaps the most pressing issue for the future of our society. The decisions we make, or don’t make, will effect generations to come. While easily worthy of this year’s Academy Award, the lasting impact of Citizenfour will be what happens next. I don’t feel I’m being hyperbolic when I say Citizenfour is one of this country’s most important documentaries, for it lays out in great detail the unconstitutional activities our government has been perpetrating in the name of national security. This documentary will undoubtedly be the crowning achievement of Poitras’ legacy as a director, and it joins the likes of Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A. as one of the seminal non-fiction films created by a female filmmaker.
Edited by-Michelle Zenor