What do an Iraqi doctor-politician, a reformed jihadist who was once Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard, and Edward Snowden all have in common? Right now, someone somewhere is saying about all three: They belong in a cage. But not Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker behind a 9/11 trilogy that begins in post-invasion Baghdad, then journeys to Guantanamo Bay and Yemen, and ends in Hong Kong. This final installment—the most revelatory and commanding of the three—focuses on Snowden, the former NSA contractor and enemy of the state.
The film, Citizenfour, like its older siblings My Country, My Country and The Oath, is an attempt to grapple with the consequences of the September 11th attacks. It’s also the only film of the three whose main subject isn’t a Muslim. This can be read as Poitras’s way of telling us that the War on Terror possesses a precise prejudice even as it lurches forward, indiscriminately. The laws of other nations aren’t the only ones that have been trampled; the Constitution has enemies both foreign and domestic.
What happened to America after nineteen men executed an act of gruesome political violence fashioned for a globalized audience? The immediate effects were seen in lower Manhattan. Living flesh and erected steel collapsed to early graves—a great exhale of extinguished life. Next came the lashing-out and the fighting-back. Saddam was hanged, and Osama was hunted. Our government expanded with unchecked power and our free press helped seal the deal—fear is the oldest rhetorical device. Pleas of WMDs accompanied Orwell and an enhanced deployment of euphemisms. Cheney and Rumsfeld and Bush draped flags over missions accomplished, secret legal memos, and sprawling executive power. Homeland security secured the homeland’s rationale for more and more data gathering. A security apparatus swallowed a state. This began a war, never ending, perpetually seeking monsters to destroy. (Et tu, Obama?)
Ctizenfour’s pulsing core is made up of scenes with Snowden, filmed in a Hong Kong hotel room. Earnest and forthright, Snowden deconstructs for us the technical operations of a twenty-first century, Americanized Stasi. The unwavering journalist Glenn Greenwald functions as Snowden’s curious interlocutor, and Obi-Wan-type hype-man. The two make a thrilling and sometimes comic duo, with bouts of paranoia and intense distress interrupted by the hotel’s fire alarm, a brief discussion on the need for a computer password longer than four letters, and Snowden’s red encryption-blankee. In the dystopian Now that Snowden describes, innocuous machines conspire as listening devices, and every node of Zuckerbergian sharing invites a NSA intercept. In a world of PRISM, XKeyscore, and Tempora, careful detective work is replaced with pre-emptive inference, probable cause with metadata extrapolation.
These aspects of our new normal contribute to the ominous hum that hangs over the whole movie, helping to dramatize the important dialogue of NSA whistleblower William Binney and activist Jacob Appelbaum. Poitras’s voice, usually absent, is put to effective use in a stylized recital of Snowden’s digital communiques. (Think Katniss Everdeen with a background in political theory and systems architecture.) Scenes of Greenwald before the Brazilian Senate, of Der Spiegel breaking the story of Angela Merkel’s wiretap, and of Guardian editors being coerced by GCHQ to take power tools to their computer hard drives all give weight to the disclosures.
Much has been said about Snowden the man, for the very little that we actually know. Citizenfour gives him the space to speak for himself, and it allows us to meet him again for the first time. The GIF loop previously burned into our brains—the glasses, the gray button-down—is all there. But there’s more now: we can now see the enormous significance of the echoes of his revelations. It’s hard to deny Snowden’s thoughtfulness and mettle, now both exiled to Russia. Snowden is careful to explain his civic-minded intentions—his decision to release the documents to trusted journalists, and his desire to expose only those government secrets that should have never been secrets to begin with.
Admirable as these intentions are, they’re a weak legal defense against the severe application of the Espionage Act. They are included in the film not as a plea for exoneration, but to teach us about the beleaguered and indispensable class of citizens known as whistleblowers. If there’s hope in Snowden’s story, it’s that it has been presented as a prelude. Eventually, the film suggests, the public might summon political solutions against domestic spying and the suffocating logic of national security. This would be a grand reversal of our 9/11 legacy.
Citizenfour is a Snowden character study only in a narrow sense. Emotional gravity emanates from his choices, but the real star of the film, the main character that it follows so closely, is the state that condemns him. Our government would have us believe that the airing of its secrets allows our enemies to transform, and that it makes us vulnerable and weak. Poitras and Snowden disagree. The greater threat, they believe, is in thinking that the threat from outside is all that matters.