★★★★ / ★★★★
Imagine while reading this review that the government is aware of what website you’re on; the exact phrase you typed on Google just a few hours ago; which Facebook pages you visited in the past few minutes; the contents of your work and personal e-mails; when, with whom, and how long you used your cell phone at the precise date and time a month ago. Well, you don’t have to imagine because the government is fully capable of all of the above, as whistleblower Edward Snowden had revealed in 2013.
“Citizenfour,” directed by Laura Poitras, is a must-see documentary because it offers an intense look on the subject of privacy—what it means as an idea versus what it actually is in a post-911 world—through Snowden’s brave and commedable decision to reveal to common people like you and me that our governments—not just the U.S. government—are collecting information from all of us, all the time. The media and the government might claim such a transgression is excusable, necessary even, for the sake of national security, but the picture astutely touches upon what surveillance is truly about.
Despite the film’s occasional technical jargon, which I appreciated in small increments, it remains as riveting as a first-class suspense-thriller. For instance, when journalist Glenn Greenwald, reporter Ewen MacAskill, and filmmakers meet with Snowden in a hotel in Hong Kong, just when they are about to open and go over top secret documents, the fire alarm goes off. It could not have been scripted any better; so Hitchcockian in timing and execution… only all of it is real. I caught my heart beating a little faster, my eyes taken over by intense suspicion, my thoughts screaming at them to stop what they were doing, reschedule, and relocate immediately for the sake of safety.
There is one masterful sequence and it will stay with me for some time. The camera has a habit of staying with Snowden, especially focusing on his facial expressions, even when he’s not doing or saying anything, just observing his entire being. Once information about the U.S. National Security Agency’s illegal wiretapping has made the airwaves, Snowden decides to read his personal e-mail. The camera keeps still, unblinking, the silence growing thicker by the second. One can tell, through Snowden’s body language, that the content of the e-mail is not good news. Snowden then takes a deep breath, walks over to the window, and peers outside. The camera follows: it is a bright, sunny day and people are going on about their business as usual, unaware that what is going on inside the hotel is history being made.
But we also spend some time outside of the hotel room. We sit inside a courtroom as the lawyers present their sides and the judges listen. We are put inside a conference room and we listen to a presenter discussing “meta-data” and “linkability”—tools that the government uses to collect personal data and then create a profile for individuals they are tracking… even though they do not have a reason to surveil a person. “Citizenfour,” serving not only as a portrait on an American hero but also required viewing for everyone who uses a credit card.