Movie Review: Citizenfour (2014)
As the world was learning about Edward Snowden, Edward Snowden was trying to fix his hair.
It’s early June 2013 and he’s in his Hong Kong hotel room, where he’s been holed up for days giving information to both Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill of The Guardian, who then slowly report that information to the world. The story has gone from the NSA getting metadata from Verizon, to the NSA getting metadata from ISPs, to, yeah, there must be a whistleblower out there. And here he is.
But while the world talks about Snowden, Snowden tries to fix his hair. First he puts too much gel in it. Then he wipes some of it off with a towel. Does he wipe off too much? Is he simply frustrated? Is he trying to distract himself from the fact that his life has irrevocably changed? He thought he knew what he was getting into, but now he’s in it, and it’s irreversible, and he’s having doubts.
Up to this point, he’s been pretty straightforward. He’s got chin stubble, an embarrassed, almost pained Seth Rogen smile, an air of an Andrew Garfield character—which it to say, a brave, sometimes failed attempt to stay within himself: to be doing the thing for the thing and not the perception of the thing. He’s coming forward, he says, because it’s no longer the elected and the electorate in America; it’s the ruler and the ruled. We’re the latter, and the former is lying about what they’re doing. The U.S. Patriot Act lowered the threshold for domestic surveillance without court order, but a threshold existed; and the NSA, under both Bush and Obama, obliterated that threshold. They’re spying on all of us.
Snowden wants the story to be about the story (what the NSA is doing) and not about him (the whistleblower), but he knows the media, playing to our need for personality, will make it about him. At the same time, he doesn’t want to appear afraid to come forward. Fuck skulking, he basically says. He wants it out there. On June 9, they finally reveal his name. And the world goes crazy.
Once the world begins to close in, once The Wall Street Journal is metaphorically banging on his door, a look comes into his eyes. Not fear, exactly. More like dread. Documentarian Laura Poitras notices and asks how he feels. He shrugs. “What happens, happens,” he says. “If I get arrested, I get arrested.” Almost everything he says is repetitive in this manner. His language turns back on itself, as if trapped. The look of dread in his eyes doesn’t go away.
When I remember “Citizenfour” I’ll remember the silence of it—the background almost thrums with silence—and the whiteness.
Snowden, who’s tech-geek white, and whose name itself implies whiteness, is first filmed wearing a white T-shirt and sitting on a bed with white sheets and leaning against a white cushiony headboard. Poitras says she initially hated all the white but now feels it works. George Packer compares Snowden here to “a figure in some obscure ritual, being readied for sacrifice.” Me, I was just hoping it wasn’t some precious arty thing: that he starts out wearing white and gradually gets dark. Which is kinda what happens.
The white T-shirt is his uniform for the first few days of interviews. Then, as stories break, we see him in a gray T-shirt, then a grayer dress shirt. By the time he leaves the hotel room, a hunted man, he’s wearing a black shirt and a black jacket.
Intentional? God, I hope not.
I know. Snowden didn’t want this to be about personality and here I am talking hair gel and T-shirts. I’m part of the problem.
I was part of the problem earlier, since I was somewhat dismissive of Snowden’s revelations. The NSA is gathering data on all of us? So safety in numbers, right? Right. Unless, of course, the federal government decides to target you and glean what info they can from that metadata. According to Glenn Greenwald, who has a new NSA whistleblower, 1.2 million (Americans or anyone?) are on the NSA’s watchlist.
For all the good this doc does, we’re still not getting the post-9/11 discussion we need. What I wrote at the end of my review of Jeremy Scahill’s “Dirty Wars” is still relevant. It’s freedom vs. safety, or, in the language here, privacy vs. security, and the post-9/11 argument is that we can’t have both. The deeper argument is: Are we giving up one (privacy) for only the illusion of the other (security)? Or this: Are we simply giving up someone else’s privacy (the 1.2 million) for the sake of our own security—real or imagined?
To me, the discussion begins here; I don’t know where it ends.
Snowden, whose code name is “Citizenfour,” picked both Greenwald and Poitras as his contacts because both are on the watchlist. We get maybe 10 minutes leading up to the June 2013 interviews, and then nearly an hour in that claustrophobic hotel room. Then Greenwald drops away—shadowed everywhere by the media—and he’s replaced by an international human rights lawyer, who spirits Snowden away. Poitras films him leaving the room, and that’s it. Then he’s gone. Off to ... where was it again? Brazil? But stuck in Moscow.
There are a few missed opportunities here. I laughed out loud at footage of Piers Morgan grilling a federal official about the awfulness of intruding upon privacy—as if he’d never been an editor for News of the World. Who isn’t spying on us? If it’s not governments, it’s the media; if not the media, corporations. We’re being spied on by algorithms. Search for a book on one site and it’ll pop up as an ad on another. Maybe the notion of privacy itself will become an outmoded concept in the digital age.
Then there’s the ending. We visit Snowden briefly in Moscow, where he’s now living with his girlfriend. Glenn Greenwald brings him up to date on all he’s learned, but writes down, rather than speaks, the most relevant material, since they all assume he’s being bugged. By Moscow? By us? By Murdoch? But the questions I’d like to ask Edward Snowden aren’t asked. What’s it like being so plugged in—as he was at the NSA—and then being completely unplugged, as he is now? Did he think the reaction of the world was commensurate with the problem as he saw it? I’d ask “The Insider” questions: Was it worth it? If he could go back, would he still come forward? Would he still blow the whistle?
Are we worth it?
These are some of the thoughts I had as I left the theater. Also this: the terrorists won.