On June 9, 2013, and for a few days afterward, Hong Kong was in the world’s spotlight. On that day, US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, Edward Snowden, revealed himself as the person who was behind the leaked information about the US government’s indiscriminate mass surveillance program to investigative journalist, Glenn Greenwald. Snowden’s story and his interview from his room at The Mira hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui is the subject of the Oscar® winning documentary feature, CITIZENFOUR.
In case you didn’t know by now, governments all over the world spy on its citizens, its enemies and its friends, both within its borders and without. They collect trillions of pieces of information about us every day – who and when we call, email or message; which websites we visit and what words we put into search engines; and what photos we take and where we take them. When we download that seemingly harmless new app, we agree to give away all our rights to privacy. But what many of us didn’t realise until Edward Snowden told us is that governments are scooping up all that data from the telecom and technology companies, and they are using it to construct an increasingly accurate picture of us. What we also didn’t know until that time is that governments also spy on other government leaders, as German chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff discovered much to their shock and anger.
CITIZENFOUR is Laura Poitras’ third film in a trilogy about America post-9/11. The first film, MY COUNTRY, MY COUNTRY (about Iraqi life under US occupation) was also nominated for an Academy Award in 2007 in the same category. At the start of CITIZENFOUR, we learn that Poitras was contacted by Snowden in January 2013 by encrypted email. He told her that he had inside information that proved what a number of high level government officials had been lying to Congress about – the NSA and other intelligence agencies were constructing an elaborate surveillance state right under our noses. It wasn’t until Poitras and Greenwald met Snowden in that Hong Kong hotel room that they realised they weren’t dealing with a typical, 50-something year old intelligence analyst. Rather, Snowden was young (just 29), smart and very well informed about the nefarious activities that these government agencies were up to.
The bulk of the film takes place in the hotel room where Snowden very calmly tells Greenwald and The Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill what he knows. Contrary to the image of Snowden that the White House wanted us to believe (“a low level contractor” with “limited security clearance”), we see that he is both composed and articulate, and that he had security clearance to access pretty much everything. He is no fool. But is Edward Snowden a patriotic whistleblower or a malicious traitor? Of course, Poitras would like us to believe the former but it’s not so simple. He revealed a lot of information that was damaging to US security interests with the promise of more bombshells to come, as we learn from the film.
Given the importance of the subject matter, there is no doubt that CITIZENFOUR is compelling viewing. Poitras would really have had to screw up badly to make a bad film. The scene where the hotel’s fire alarm goes off is more than a bit disconcerting as we, along with Snowden and the others in the room, have to work out in real time whether there really is a fire in the hotel or if it’s a prelude to a SWAT team breaking the door down and hauling Snowden off someplace where he’ll never been seen or heard from again. On the other hand, though, we also watch him apply hair gel and discuss how much of his beard to trim before he goes into self-imposed exile. This is hardly riveting material but perhaps Poitras included this footage to balance the thrilling with the mundane.
With all the press coverage that Edward Snowden has received since that time, we all think we know him. This film shows that we really didn’t. We know that he is currently living under political asylum in Russia along with his long-time girlfriend who flew out there to be with him but we didn’t realise until now how big a toll this has taken on him. His boyish looks have been replaced with raccoon eyes, no doubt the result of expecting to be “neutralised” at any time. If Snowden were Russian or Chinese, for sure he’d be dead by now. If the Americans are keeping him alive on purpose, his may be a fate worse than death.
(Oliver Stone is currently working on a film about Edward Snowden, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (DON JON) and Shailene Woodley (THE FAULT IN OUR STARS). It is scheduled to be released on December 25, 2015.)
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 32:40.)
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