Edward Snowden Documentary 'Citizenfour:' A Real-Life Paranoid Thriller

By now the contents of the Edward Snowden/NSA leaks are over a year old, so it would seem that the film Citizenfour would come well past the expiration date of those shocks. But director Laura Poitras' third installment in her trilogy about post-9/11 America (My Country, My Country and The Oath being the previous two titles) isn't a documentary that burdens itself by being a bland factsheet that most contemporary documentaries tend to be. A firsthand account of one of the most important moments in 21st Century American history, its substance is the stuff of paranoid spy thrillers.

The film unravels like a procedural: Citizenfour starts from the very beginning of the leaks when Snowden reached out to Poitras under the titular moniker through encrypted emails (he actually contacted Greenwald first, but the encryption methods were too "annoying" for Greenwald). Citizenfour goes through the usual motions of providing context with archival footage (including multiple NSA directors lying under oath before Congressional committees) and b-roll footage of top secret government facilities from afar, but the centerpiece is the time spent with Edward Snowden as he hides in a hotel room in Hong Kong. Viewers may remember this as the moment when Snowden revealed himself to the world. The filmmaker herself is an integral character, and the view afforded the audience of history is extremely intimate.

This entire midsection of Citizenfour plays out as a real-life chamber drama as Snowden, Greenwald, Poitras, and The Guardian's Ewen MacAskill spend days cooped up in the cramped hotel room under an extreme sense of caution. As Snowden spills state secrets on-camera, the true reach of such unchecked power is shown in minor details—Snowden unplugging his room telephone to avoid bugging, hiding under a blanket on-camera when typing passwords, and the brief panic over unexpected fire alarms. In the absence of fresh revelations (aside from a heavily teased one in the final scene), Citizenfour relies on the drama of Snowden, Poitras, et al. facing the most powerful force imaginable. The players negotiate how the massive information leak will be gradually rolled out to the public in pieces and how to avoid turning Snowden himself into the center of media attention, showing that even real-life events can use a little narrative shaping to achieve maximum potency. When wielded properly, storytelling and spin can be an effective weapon against any adversary. Citizenfour is just that.

Citizenfour is out in theaters this Friday. In Los Angeles it will be playing at The Landmark.