Review: ‘CITIZENFOUR’ is a thrilling re-examination of Snowden’s NSA leaks

Imagine sitting in on Deep Throat's first meeting with Woodward and Bernstein. Not like “All the President's Men,” shrouded in Gordon Willis shadows or dramatized by William Goldman's cunning ear, but watching as a fly on the wall, witnessing men risk careers, futures and lives in the name of uncovering conspiracy.

That's the paranoid exhilaration of “CITZENFOUR,” Laura Poitras' inside look into the 2013 global surveillance disclosures and the man who blew the NSA whistle: Edward Snowden. Actually, “inside” doesn't do the film justice; Poitras isn't picking the brains of experts and beginning her investigation after the fact. As Snowden and Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald sift through a cache of confidential documents to decide where to strike first, Poitros is there rolling camera, rubbing shoulders with a man whose media profile would explode only a week after their first face-to-face meeting. A reminder of the NSA's infractions, an indictment of American bullying tactics and a powerful character study of the down-to-Earth Snowden, “CITIZENFOUR” is an expertly crafted expose with unprecedented urgency.

It begins with an encrypted e-mail from a mysterious sender, “CITIZENFOUR,” who explains that he wants Poitras, a filmmaker added to the Department of Homeland Security's “watch list” after producing two inflammatory documentaries investigating post-9/11 government, to be the recipient of the largest confidential files leak in modern history. There is shady business going down at the NSA. To get the documents into the world, truthseekers will have to act even shadier. With Greenwald in the mix, CITIZENFOUR sets up a covert meeting. He'll find Poitras in a Hong Kong hotel lobby. He'll be solving a rubix cube so she'll know who he is. She'll ask him for the restaurant hours. He'll say he won't know, but that he wants to check, too. Then they'll walk towards the restaurant, divert to the elevators and powwow in a hotel room. Ethan Hunt would be proud.

Sitting on a hotel bed, planning the next stages of his operation, Snowden predicts the downfall of his own reputation. Talking heads antagonistically label him a wannabe martyr, a know-nothing, a traitor and dig up every skeleton in his closet to hang in the media gallows for the world to see. And then it happens. After Greenwald exposes his source – something the whistleblower wanted from the beginning – 24-hour news channels swarm around the security issues and their new celebrity. We know because Snowden sits and watches the coverage as he shaves, gels his hair, throws on a dark suit and prepares to outrun Chinese reporters incognito.

The triumph of “CITIZENFOUR” is profiling Snowden without a moment of sensationalism. When he first meets Greenwald and Poitras, the charming, well-spoken system administrator critiques them like an Apple Genius Bar employee. “Your password is too short,” he tells the Guradian reporter, saying that the NSA will crack his 10-key codeword in a few weeks. Having technically stolen massive amounts of information from the NSA, Poitras' subject wallows in a strange, calm paranoia. When typing on his computer, he drapes a blanket over himself on the off-chance that cameras are watching and detecting his key strokes. Later, a fire alarm goes off, making Snowden wonder whether authorities could be drawing outside the room. One wrong move and he's toast. All the while, Snowden contends with the emotion of the situation. He couldn't tell anyone – his family, his friends, his girlfriend of seven years – of his plan to release the information and flee the country. Poitras' subject never takes the stage for a stirring confessional; they come naturally, erupting into the filmmaker's locked-off camera position like bubbles in a slow boil. Snowden was ready to ruin his life to expose the NSA. There's no rational explanation for why. Shrugging, he tells Poitras he just had to do it.

Executive produced by Steven Soderbergh, “CITIZENFOUR” moves with the meticulous motion of one of the “retired” director's genre films. There's a “Mission: Impossible”-as-“Contagion” vibe to Poitras' film, as successful a global thriller as a surveillance intel compendium. After Greenwald and Poitras meet and interview Snowden and translate his discoveries into earth-shattering Guardian articles, the information ripples through the worldwide media, sending the characters off into every direction. Hong Kong, Rio, London, Moscow, Washington D.C. – a location roster Hollywood blockbusters would kill for. There's visceral entertainment to watching revelations turn public figures on their heads. Poitras roasts former NSA director Keith B. Alexander by juxtaposing a March 2012 congressional hearing on data collection (“Does the NSA collect information from Google?” “No,” Alexander mutters) with reports on Snowden's documents. Obama bumbles in a responsive speech, suggesting that inquiries and investigations would have come about by legal means… eventually. “CITIZENFOUR” is scathing and dour, but thrilling all at once. Anyone cognizant during the Snowden reports saw the leak's massive impact. Poitras cuts through the spin, weaponizing pop culture language to help humanize the intrusive, dystopian situation.

The conspiracy is frightening, but the retaliation is even scarier. Part of Snowden's leak involves Tempora, the UK's even more invasive computer spying system. Under pressure from the British government over worries about what published secrets might harm the country, The Guardian finds itself buckling and destroying portions of the outlet's files, literally taking hammers, sanders and drills to motherboards and destroying them. Greenwald suffers his own form of torture, his partner incarcerated in the Rio airport for nine hours under terrorist suspicions. Poitras communicates with Snowden via instant messenger – a simulated version used to great suspense in the film – as he navigates the tricky world of Russian asylum, fearing that the government will snatch him up at any moment.

“CITIZENFOUR” captures the fearmongering aftermath of the surveillance disclosure without fluffy graphics or stylistic frills. In “Spaceballs,” there's a scene where Darth Helmet rents “Spaceballs” to get a leg up on his enemy, accidentally fast-forwarding to “right now” for a meta-viewing experience. That's “CITIZENFOUR,” and that's even more jaw-dropping, mesmerizing and scary as hell when you walk out of the theater where the story continues on.

In one of the film's final scenes, Poitros and Greenwald meet Snowden in Moscow to disclose a surprise: The reporters have another whistleblowing source ready to talk and they want an expert opinion on the incoming secrets. “No fucking way!” Snowden can't believe what he's reading.

Yes, “CITIZENFOUR” is a documentary with enough shocks to make even its subject exclaim. Maybe that's a bad sign for us.