Meet Edward Snowden. Just about everyone has heard of the 29-year-old NSA consultant infrastructure analyst who blew the whistle on the U.S. government's program of warrantless mass spying on its own citizens. But Laura Poitras' exemplary documentary "Citizenfour" shares with us the privileged access Snowden ("I go by Ed") granted to Poitras and Guardian reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, thereby humanizing a man previously seen mostly in iconic terms.
That we're seeing Poitras' footage only now is partly due to Snowden's concern that he would become the story, distracting from the incendiary revelations he enabled out of his own idealistic sense of duty -- and at great personal cost. One inevitable byproduct of Snowden's actions is his own fame, and some may continue to interpret Snowden's motivation as self-aggrandizement. But to see an unrehearsed Snowden briefing his hand-picked reporters is to be impressed by his keen intelligence, humility, apparently pure motivation and preternatural calm under unfathomable stress.
Articulate and poised, Snowden unceremoniously holds court in a Hong Kong hotel room over what Poitras calls an eight-day "encounter," beginning on June 3, 2013. Perhaps the most striking element of "Citizenfour" is that it is filled with language that sounds like hyperbole but isn't, like Snowden's assertion that the NSA is "building the greatest weapon of oppression in the history of man ... a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not."
The resulting extraordinary "you are there" document of history unfolding evokes the paranoid thrillers of the post-Watergate years with action no more active than cloak-and-hacker lip flapping: tech-speak and wonky talk of political philosophy and legal strategy. "Citizenfour"'s centerpiece is its footage of Snowden's journalistic testimony and consideration of how best to share it and deal with the consequences of doing so, but Poitras also includes select footage of legal actions and public forums that offer contextual (and Snowden-friendly) perspectives on NSA overreach.
"Citizenfour" neither gives the full story of Snowden and his campaign nor purports to, but it does elucidate how (and convincingly argues why) Snowden colluded with journalists to expose oversight-free surveillance of civilians, which threatens to have a chilling effect on free expression (though ironically only Snowden's public revelation of the government's secret intelligence-gathering technology and methodology could widely spread that chilling effect).
"Citizenfour" stands firmly in Snowden's corner and gives him a powerful mouthpiece, just as the "Guardian"'s reporting did. Poitras' approach can be assailed for not being fair and balanced, though it includes a few passing government "defenses" in PR and legal situations. But it's just as true that the uncontested facts Snowden revealed are cause for outrage, and issued from a convincingly sincere intent of "meaningfully" exposing and opposing the clandestine misuse of state power. As such, "Citizenfour" is a film every single American -- and, indeed, every world citizen -- should see.
Rated R for language. One hour, 54 minutes.