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Arts & Life

As A Documentary, 'Citizenfour' Captivates Like A Spy Thriller

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Courtesy of The Weinstein Company
Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald

In Citizenfour, Edward Snowden sits on a bed in an upscale hotel in Hong Kong. The building itself stands tall in the city with crisp, sterile lines. It's not a charming hotel; it's a stiff monument to wealth, disconnected from the richness of human life, culture or ethics, or messy notions of things like personal or political freedom.

Edward Snowden is on the lam from American authorities and he doesn't fit these surroundings. His white T-shirt sports no logos or advertisements; he has shadows of beard on his chin and upper lip. An earlier generation might call Snowden's appearance "unprepossessing." Younger people might say he looks nerdy.

Depending on your point of view, Snowden has become either famous or infamous.

Edward Snowden worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, a contractor for the National Security Agency, and he spirited out of the company tons of classified information about the data-gathering that has obsessed the U.S. government since 9-11. Snowden did it partly because it's also not just those people who've been spied upon, people we think we have reason to watch. The NSA is collecting data on all of us.

That information has been out for a while; we don't need the film to show what Snowden told the world. The picture matters because it shows how tricky it is for Americans to learn about their own government, and what kind of guy Edward Snowden may be.

Citizenfour comes off as part cloak and dagger story and part conversation with a soft-spoken, thoughtful young man. It begins with director Laura Poitras, known for her films about government misbehavior, getting mysterious emails about the National Security Agency's collection of data, along with messages about how to encrypt email and how the secret information should be revealed to the world.

The sender calls himself "citizen four" - it's Edward Snowden.

Poitras met him in person in Hong Kong where she filmed eight days of conversation with Snowden and two reporters for The Guardian: Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskell.

It's no dry documentary. The information is scary. The footage of U.S. intelligence chiefs lying through their teeth infuriating. Most of all, the film looks at Snowden himself close up. Laura Poitras is not a dispassionate reporter, nor are the two reporters from The Guardian, who are outraged about NSA activities.

Another reason the Snowden affair is interesting is that it crosses the typical, dismal political categories that infect American politics. Some on both the right and the left consider Snowden a traitor. Other people from all corners of American politics deplore the invasive snooping of the NSA. Other fascinating questions are who is Edward Snowden and why is he doing this?

Snowden talks like Daniel Ellsberg, the former Marine and defense department analyst who released the Pentagon Papers to the world during the Vietnam War. He's thoughtful and analytical, and he knows about how to gather data. He's not opposed to intelligence gathering and he believes that some things are rightly held secret. Actually, Snowden has a quiet, intellectual voice like some Quaker war resisters in the Vietnam period, and the Berrigan brothers, the anti-Vietnam war Catholic priests.

He insists that he is not the issue, that what he's doing is about the information, not his person. He tells Poitras that when the information comes out, they should "paint a target directly on my back." He even says "nail me to the cross," although he's more analyst than martyr. Snowden probably has less ego in the game than Ellsberg did, but he's driven by the same idealistic outrage that our government would behave so badly.

Yet what Citizenfour leaves in its wake is a persistent feeling of danger and paranoia. At the end, Snowden is a fugitive in Moscow writing down for reporter Glenn Greenwald what he dare not say out loud.

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