Citizenfour (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
8Apr/150

Citizenfour (2014)

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In June 2013, stories began to leak regarding NSA surveillance leading to allegations of illegal monitoring of American citizens.  As more information was released, Edward Snowden outed himself as the leak.  He was not alone in releasing this information, and he contacted director Laura Poitras to share what he knows.  Citizenfour is directed by Poitras and won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

Here I amI am not a fan of the administration of Barack Obama.  He had been a disappointment in several areas of economic and social justice by keeping far too restrained while his opponents have carefully torn down pieces of his signature achievements.  But I am a supporter of the Obama administration, and can temper my intense disappointment with profound relief at the advancements he made in health care and cautious domestic progress.  Edward Snowden, by virtue of standing up to the Obama administration in a very public and daring way, accomplished what many of Obama's opponents could not and Snowden's name has now become enshrined in the legacy of NSA spying that Obama continued after George Bush.

These feelings are important because I am not a glowing fan of either man, and Citizenfour, for all its whispered tension and nearly unbearable moments of silence, still presents a conflicted outlook on the tension between the Obama administration and the actions of Snowden.  It is not a tension revealed exclusively in the lengthy exchanges of information between director Laura Poitras, journalist Glenn Greenwald, and Snowden, but it is in the way Poitras presents their story.  She, correctly, realizes Citizenfour is treading into murky moral territory and no one will escape being labeled a bad guy.

The various means anyone can be observed digitally provides a running visual motif in Citizenfour. Someone is watching another person recording a digital device documenting any exchange at any time.

The various means anyone can be observed digitally provides a running visual motif in Citizenfour. Someone is watching another person recording a digital device documenting any exchange at any time.

So Poitras, in an ingenious move, builds her narrative with all the shadow and uncertainty of classic noir with a healthy dose of conspiracy thrillers.  It may not share the same DNA, but the hushed conversations, careful plotting, and paranoid glances recall the courageous, if secreted, moral decisions of Jean Pierre Melville's Army of Darkness and the smothering paranoia of The Conversation.  Watching Citizenfour I sometimes had to remind myself that it was a documentary as many of the quiet conversations and remarkable bits of tension seem built from a fiction arising of those Cold War tensions in the '60s and '70s.

Considering the subject, Poitras must have had to wrestle with the temptation to sensationalize the unfolding saga of Snowden's NSA leaks.  But listen to Poitras' voice, the first thing we hear in Citizenfour, as she discusses how she first came into contact with Snowden.  As a disorienting image of a highway slowly materializes from blackness we hear Poitras' voice as though she is exhausted from running.  Each word is preceded with careful deliberation and silence, as though she is aware this is her one opportunity to get the story straight after so much work.

Poitras' tired and conspiratorial tone hint at one of Citizenfour's greatest strategies in the way Poitras plays with the sound.  Citizenfour's sound mixing is much more akin to a horror film than other documentaries I've watched, and is in an entirely different world than the playful tones of a documentary filmmaker like Errol Morris.  The effect is magnificently unsettling as my ears were trained from years of horror films to listen for the slash of a knife which never comes in an expected manner.  Instead it made me more receptive to the different tones of the players in Citizenfour.  Only Greenwald is allowed a moment of happiness to shine through his voice.  Snowden is focused, but scared, much like Poitras when we hear her speak.

The sound design is also at odds with the seemingly mundane images which become increasingly claustrophobic within Citizenfour.  Much like my ears were waiting for the sound of a blade, my eyes were watching for the appearance of someone from the Secret Service or an attacker who wanted to silence Snowden.  As the threat of exposure escalates prior to Snowden's decision to out himself Poitras directs her shots toward the hotel Snowden has exiled himself to.  The few shots which are outside the hotel Snowden is sequestered in are recordings of other broadcasts.  The point is gradually made through this visual decision that Snowden will likely never escape the comfortable walls which he has doomed himself to by outing the NSA's data collection.  We become more conscious of the walls, the cameras which could catch his image at any moment, the computer which he needs to take care to use lest he be tracked by the United States government, and the phone whose constant ringing signals that his life, as he knows it, is over.

I was frequently struck by Snowden's humility and concern for his fellow man in Citizenfour, even when he could only communicate in sparse text.

I was frequently struck by Snowden's humility and concern for his fellow man even when he could only communicate in sparse text.

Those threatening images and sounds coalesce in some of the most devastatingly tense exchanges caught on film for a documentary.  Right when Snowden begins releasing information about the NSA he has to start acting more cautiously.  The worst thing that could happen is some reminder that his caution is not enough and, right when he is walking Greenwald through a swath of material, the fire alarm begins to sound.  But as Snowden scans the windows and looks underneath the door he sees no fire, and the blaring continues as his voice is lowered to a terrified near-whisper.  This is one of those miraculous sequences which can only occur in documentaries, catching the pained surprise of real life consequences on a man who thinks he is doing the right thing, and the audience left wondering which aspect of his prison will betray him first.

I am still in support of the measures taken by the NSA to digitally record and analyze American communications.  It is an unfortunate reality of our new technological age, one I accepted during the Bush years and continued to accept during Obama's terms, and so long as there is a public agency which can be held accountable for what they collect and do then we have the ability to put into power those who can remove the program.  But through the lens of Citizenfour I realize my comfort is not one easily shared, nor one I would expect others to.  There was real rage behind Obama's words when he denounced Snowden, and the estranged man can't help but wonder if someone will be watching his death from the drone feeds he had such easy access to.

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Tail - CitizenfourCitizenfour (2014)

Directed by Laura Poitras.

Posted by Andrew

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