The West died a long time ago, but Americans still love a good cowboy story. Edward Snowden is exactly that: a myopic 21st century cowboy with strong notions of good and evil and absolutely terrible jeans. Whatever you think of Snowden, and whatever Snowden thinks of himself (probably gross, don’t want to know), his story fits seamlessly into our cinematic imagination: a lonely vigilante (former Systems Administrator) battles a big bad guy (the NSA) to protect a town (country) from extermination (err . . . reading their sexts). Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ latest documentary exploring the Snowden revelations, works almost flawlessly as a non-fiction sci-fi Western. It zooms and charges and resonates. And while it’s far less successful as a character study, the film is an unnervingly powerful piece of modern journalism: combining the intellectual clarity of a New Yorker feature with the emotional vigor of a Dateline episode.
Citizenfour is actually the last of a three-part trilogy made by Poitras, exploring life after 9/11. Earlier features, including My Country, My Country, and The Oath, featured nuanced protagonists struggling to make hard life choices (snooze). As a result of her work, Poitras became a target for the NSA: the artist was detained nearly 40 times at airports, the last 10 years alone. So it made perfect sense that Snowden approached Poitras to film and report his disclosures. At the beginning of the film, Poitras reads back some of Snowden’s/Citizenfour’s best emails/pick-up lines.
“You asked why I picked you. I didn’t. You did. The surveillance you’ve experienced means you’ve been selected, a term which will mean more to you as you learn how the modern signit system works. . .
This is a story that few but you can tell.”
Bold. Move. Bro. A grammatically correct email from an anonymous source promising the director a ground-breaking story that “few but you can tell?” His email isn’t a pitch, but a seduction: Snowden offers Poitras a starring role in his groundbreaking tragic play. It’s brilliantly melodramatic and cautiously grandiose: a 19th century romance with 21st century details.
As Citizenfour progresses, we too become players in Snowden’s romance: fully-clothed partners in a cinematic ménage-a-trois. The story starts with a series of anonymous emails between Poitras and Snowden, before moving to a hotel room in Hong Kong, where the two are joined by journalist Glenn Greenwald. Over a series of eight days, Snowden discloses a series of terrifying secrets to the journalists that most of us, by now, are familiar with. Dressed in nothing but a white shirt and jeans, Snowden is the Louis CK of vigilante nerds: a big rational mind lodged in a sympathetic everyman body. He is as equally smug as he is deferential. It’s almost impossible not to be seduced by his post-apocalyptic vision of the present.
Poitras occasionally moves out of the hotel room to introduce similarly compelling side characters and stories. There’s William Binney, a form NSA codebreaker turned whistleblower, and Jacob Applebaum, an Occupy Wall Street activist with insufferable Occupy Wall Street mannerisms (man, the gesticulating). He has, by far, the best quote of the film: “What we used to call liberty and freedom we now call privacy.”
This isn’t just Snowden’s fight, Poitras makes clear. He’s joined by many other nerds with understated glasses dead-set on exposing their duplicitous government. Through splicing Snowden’s story with others, Poitras turns what could otherwise be a flat biopic into deliciously pulpy movie journalism. Sure, it’s clear that Poitras sees these characters as heroes, with little room left for ambiguity. But while I love a little nuance – sometimes it’s nice to see the good guys fight the bad guys, even if it’s just with the strength of their passwords.
Still, privacy is an abstract concept, hard to make intimate. I remember when the Snowden story first came out – my brain thought: “Oh no! Our government is lying to us!” while my heart said: “Whomp whomp who cares certainly not me.” For ninety nine percent of Americans, the NSA’s intrusions will have no immediate effect on their day-to-day lives. Yes, United States government, I did spend three hours google image searching “dogs with casts” yesterday. I did call someone in a Bank of America chat room “the devil” and I actively follow my Domino’s pizza tracker. What are you going to do about it? Most of us know that the government abuses our civil liberties. But sometimes it’s hard to feel that violence on a real, human, level.
Most of the drama in Citizenfour, then, is intellectual, not emotional – except when it comes to Snowden. Without relying on interviews, Poitras creates a portrait of a humble, courageous man fighting the good fight against a big, bad government. The problem with Poitras’ depiction is that it appears to reflect the exact image Snowden has created of himself (although I can’t imagine Snowden ever saw himself with such large pores – lotta close-ups here). The director doesn’t critique or reflect – she projects. At one point, Snowden literally compares himself to Jesus Christ – you know, the son of God – and Poitras does little to challenge the delusion:
“My personal desire is that you paint the target directly on my back . . . No one, not even my most trusted confidant, is aware of my intentions and it would not be fair for them to fall suspicion to my actions. You may be the only one who can prevent that, and that is by immediately nailing me to the cross.”
It’s completely possible to be sympathetic to Snowden’s actions and simultaneously investigate his character. Snowden acts like he stumbled into a giant government conspiracy, but as George Packer points out in an excellent profile in The New Yorker, Snowden’s “self-portrait doesn’t completely square with others’ accounts or the historical records,” adding:
“Snowden went to great trouble over a long period to amass the astonishing quantity of secrets that he passed on to Poitras and Greenwald—including taking a private-contractor position solely with the aim of downloading N.S.A. files. None of this is revealed under Greenwald’s questioning.”
For whatever reason, Poitras doesn’t include any outside information that would challenge Snowden’s portrait of himself. The role of the “martyr” is always the best role in every play (and, by the way, the best role in every relationship – you never lose, everybody hates your ex). Snowden acts like he’s just after the greater good, that he doesn’t want anything more than justice – but Christ figures are more complicated than that. Justice is achieved through self-sacrifice, heroism through masochism, self-aggrandizement through self-denial. Snowden portrays himself as a “reluctant vigilante” uninterested in celebrity – and Poitras does absolutely nothing to challenge his adolescent projection.
Still, none of this takes away from one of 2014’s best feature-length documentaries. For all its myopia, Citizenfour creates a powerful dystopia that isn’t called “District 13,” and that refuses to feature Shailene Woodley. The danger is clear and present. The hero – kinda weird. When I went to see Citizenfour at IFC – whose audience is typically composed of well-dressed corpses – it was nice to see people actually react. I heard at threes “Oh nos!” and at least one man jumped out of his seat (I think to pull some handi-wipes out of his tote bag– c’mon dude). Citizenfour is too close to its subject to function as a character study. But it absolutely thrives as a postmodern thriller and Ghostwriter episode, carefully filed under “documentary.” A call-to-action in a world it’s not quite sure it can change.
Heather Dockray is a comedian and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you aren’t from Moveon.org.