Citizenfour

February 20, 2015
Edward Snowden in 'Citizenfour' (2014)
Edward Snowden in 'Citizenfour' (2014)

It’s a coincidence that a wayward comedy such as The Interview is sharing cinema bills with two other movies with strongly political themes: Laura Poitras’s documentary, Citizenfour, which gives us a close-up view of US whistleblower extraordinaire, Edward Snowden; and Rosewater, which tells the real-life story of Maziar Bahari, a journalist imprisoned by the Iranians in an incident that foreshadows the ordeal of Peter Greste and his Al Jazeera colleagues in Egypt.

Citizenfour is a no-frills documentary that tells how director, Laura Poitras, was contacted by an anonymous source within America’s National Security Agency (NSA). Having already made two films on security topics that had earned the displeasure of the United States government, Poitras was a logical choice for a whistleblower who had damaging information about the way the NSA keeps tabs on its own citizens.

It soon becomes apparent that the source, “Citizenfour”, is on the level, and willing to co-operate, even to the extent of revealing his true identity on camera. A meeting is arranged in a hotel room in Hong Kong, for 20 May 2013, where we are introduced to Edward Snowden, a 30-year-old computer boffin, employed as a high-end analyst by the CIA.

It’s now history that Snowden’s disclosures have caused monumental embarrassment to the United States’ government, and led to his own exile in Russia. Amid the hysteria there has been a concerted campaign to portray Snowden as a traitor and a spy. Citizenfour paints a very different picture – of a young man driven by his conscience to reveal the outlandish extent of government monitoring of private phone and internet communications. In speaking up he knew full well that he would be branded a criminal and put on a US ‘most wanted’ list.

The Snowden who discusses surveillance with Poitras and American journalist, Glenn Greenwald, in the Hong Kong hotel room, is no wide-eyed fanatic. He talks in a calm, rational manner, producing the most staggering statistics and revelations. Although the film’s technique could hardly be more static, the content is straight out of a horror movie.

Regardless of whether one views Snowden as a hero or a traitor, he reveals that the NSA has been engaged in an invasion of privacy to a degree that may have only seemed possible in science fiction movies. Not only were the leaders of other nations being monitored, there was ample scope for corporate espionage, and for wholesale spying into the affairs of ordinary citizens.

At a time when Tony Abbott wants to rush ahead with new security laws that will give the state unprecedented access to everyone’s phone and internet records, Citizenfour should make us pause and take stock of these proposals. It is the greatest triumph of terrorism to prompt liberal democracies to adopt totalitarian methods with their own populations. It bears out Nietzsche’s adage that when one fights with monsters, one must beware of becoming a monster.

Citizenfour
Written & directed by Laura Poitras
Starring Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Jacob Appelbaum
Germany/USA, rated M, 114 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 21st February, 2015.