Cast: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Jacob Appelbaum, Ewen McAskill
Oscar Wins: Best Documentary Feature (Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy, Dirk Wilutzky)
SUMMARY: This film is a documentary without reenactments; all characters are played by themselves.
Laura Poitras is a documentary filmmaker who had already produced two features about post-9/11 America by 2013. Early in that year, she starts to get encrypted emails from an anonymous source, known only as “Citizenfour”. This person claims to have information about widespread wiretapping and digital monitoring practices going on inside the United States — practices that are unknown to the average citizen, and are illegal. In subsequent emails, Citizenfour recommends a face-to-face meeting, and advises Poitras to team up with Glenn Greenwald, a journalist who works for The Guardian. Greenwald had also received encrypted emails from Citizenfour in the past, but when he was unable to set up a secure connection, the emails stopped. Greenwald does agree to work with Poitras, and also brings in Guardian investigative reporter Ewen MacAskill. The three travel together to Hong Kong to meet Citizenfour, who they soon learn is really Edward Snowden. Snowden is a computer whiz who worked (through a company loan-out) for the NSA, and thus learned about the illegal spying programs. Snowden had extremely high security clearance for his job, and after deciding that what he was seeing was illegal, he made copies of archives and files that documented the illegal activity. Poitras, Greenwald and MacAskill interview Snowden for eight days, initially from his hotel room in Hong Kong, where he has fled for safety reasons. In the first few days, Greenwald publishes his first article about the scandal, which hits the American media like a bombshell. Several days later, Poitras publishes the second article; others follow at regular intervals
The outrage among the Americans, particularly the media, is widespread; people of other countries, whose own governments have similar programs (basically allowing the government to track every digital movement you make, without your knowledge or consent — meaning phone calls, emails, ATM transactions, etc) feel the same way. The heat also begins to come down on Snowden, who is seen either as a hero or a traitor (for stealing classified documents). Not long after the articles are published, Snowden starts to get phone calls in his hotel room that make him suspicious. The entire team relocates to Poitras’ room, to avoid the calls and media. To avoid extradition Snowden requests refugee status from the UN and schedules a meeting with them. He intends to go to Cuba until the meeting, but mid-trirp his US passport is canceled, and he is stranded in a Moscow airport. A few days later Poitras also leaves for Berlin, after realizing that she is being followed. Snowden is stuck in Moscow for quite a while until the Russian government gives him a temporary asylum period of one year (later extended to three). Greenwald returns to his home in Brazil and keeps informing people of the spying programs. Though he has not faced a direct threat, his partner is detained at an airport after his articles are published, and Greenwald becomes wary of reentering the United States. Some time later, Poitras, Greenwald and Snowden are able to meet in Russia, where they discuss the effect their expose has had on the world, particularly the United States. Greenwald updates Snowden on several key issues and points of the ongoing investigation, but only through writing; he then tears up the paper and collects the pieces.
MY TAKE: For a while this movie is scary in the way that Fahrenheit 9/11 is scary — there’s a lot going on in your own country that you don’t know about. Basically, the spying programs came about after 9/11 as a result of the Patriot Act, which gave the government power to collect digital data about suspicious characters (as I understand it). However, in the years since, the involved agencies, particularly the NSA, have begun to collect and track data on pretty much everybody, which is illegal. Snowden made digital copies of tons of incriminating documents which proved the illegal activity, which he turned over to the journalists, as shown in this film. Like I said, for a while this is really scary, but for me the tension wore off before the movie was over. Perhaps it is because the whole scape of the bombshell is revealed early on: there’s no buildup, with you gradually realizing how deep things go (sort of like All the President’s Men). You’re told very early on that they’re tracking everybody, and that it’s illegal — nobody has to find proof of either of these things. Of course, the documentary was filmed in real-time, as Greenwald and Poitras were revealing the scandal, so that does add something, as does the fact that Snowden is seemingly pursued like Jason Bourne. It’s just that the shock wears off, and the back half of the film feels like a rehashing of what we’ve already been told. As for Snowden and the issue of spying, I have mixed feelings. I think that electronic monitoring is an effective way of tracking and monitoring potential threats (which you were supposed to have a warrant for, I think), but to the millions of non-threats it’s a huge invasion of privacy. It’s a thin line: I want to be protected, but I don’t think the government needs to be able to spy on me any time they want. Snowden was heroic for wanting to divulge this crime, but he did steal classified documents, and his actions could have had a huge negative effect on American operations going on around the world. This is also a thin line: yes, he potentially protected millions of people, but he also endangered others. Obviously, these documents were classified at least partly because the NSA didn’t want the wider public to know about them, but there could also be information in there that jeopardized other aspects of the government. It’s tough to know how to feel.
RATING: Starts like a real-life Bourne but turns boring.