Film Review: CITIZENFOUR (directed by Laura Poitras)

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by Jason Rohrer on October 11, 2014

in Film


For a movie that spends several cloak-and-dagger days during June 2013 inside that famous Hong Kong hotel room with NSA contractor Edward Snowden and Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, journalist/filmmaker Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour is a surprisingly dull watch. Snowden is a photogenic young man of great eloquence, in his area of expertise one of the best-informed people in the world, and – a documentarian’s dream – erudite in exactly the right way to describe the significance of his classified revelations. Greenwald too is a remarkable figure, fluent in multiple languages, contextually provocative and emotionally charged. Poitras is a constant presence via her narration and her competent handheld camerawork (she shares cinematography credit with Kirsten Johnson, Katy Scoggin, and Trevor Paglen). She was there, but somehow, we are not.

Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong in Laura Poitras's documentary CITIZENFOUR.

Poitras’s first-person photography feels like second-hand information, despite the sensation and gravity of the subject matter. The film fails to capture in cinematic terms the moment-to-moment impetus of the unfolding drama. We look at earnest, intelligent faces a great deal, and there is much staring out of windows. Some incidents, such as a real-time surprise fire drill that amps up the already justifiable paranoia in the hotel room, look very creepy for the participants. That they were less so for me, watching from a great cinematic distance, is, however, not the primary note on this movie.

GCHQ satellites in Bude, England. From Laura Poitras's documentary CITIZENFOUR. Photo by Trevor Paglen.

The headlines generated just last year by Snowden’s whistleblowing – for starters, proving virtually every major cell phone and internet provider’s complicity with Homeland Security surveillance protocols finalized and executed under President Obama – make this an invaluable document of political and historical significance. I thought I paid attention 16 months ago when this story broke, but I was surprised by fully half the frightening journalistic scoops piled up here, discoveries damning enough to discourage any patriot. The US Department of Justice, in the form of attorneys and FBI field agents, abets the NSA in a lockstep circumvention of judicial and legislative oversight, and the film suggests persuasively that the executive branch is at the heart of the assault on privacy laws; to see the extent to which our European allies are in league with these developments is sobering indeed.

Edward Snowden in Laura Poitras's documentary CITIZENFOUR.

The rare opportunity here is missed, perhaps partly due to Poitras’s admirable rush to get this timely information to the people (some of the interviews are as recent as the summer of 2014). Often in politically-oriented documentaries, it’s agenda that retards the visceral impact; this time it seems more like a lack of editing, pacing, and general filmmaking chops.

Communication between Edward Snowden and director Laura Poitras, from her documentary CITIZEN FOUR.

It’s the third in the director’s trilogy of documentaries about post-9/11 America; Snowden reached out to her, and Greenwald, because they shared a commitment to exposing what they saw as the most important story of the day: the monitoring of private citizens, by appointed policing bodies, at the expense of individual freedoms, in the name of national security. It is not coincidence that Poitras and Greenwald, and now Snowden, and his sometime associate Julian Assange, are all expatriates. They share a well-documented history of, at least, harassment at home for their efforts toward government transparency. Their work to bring this information to light seems heroic and imperative. But even their anecdotes of bullying and intimidation, of injustice, of tangential drama, are so insufficiently explored that they hardly warrant the bare mention that they receive; as ever, compelling conflict takes a back seat to the listing of yet more crimes.

The NSA. From Laura Poitras's documentary CITIZENFOUR. Photo by Trevor Paglen.

Efficiently streamlined to 80 or 90 of its present 114 minutes, under the supervision of an expert visual storyteller, this tale could have the emotional impact its subject deserves. Still, to give Poitras her due, she has captured on film some of the biggest disclosures ever made about how the American government views not only a hostile world, but its own electorate.

A still from CITIZENFOUR showing Edward Snowden and his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, in Russia.

photos by Trevor Paglen
stills courtesy of RADiUS

RADiUS presents a Praxis Films Production
in association with Participant Media and HBO Documentary Films
American / color /114 min
English and Portuguese with English subtitles
opens on October 24, 2014 in Los Angeles and New York
national release to follow
for more info, visit

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