I first started documenting my film going in 2007 and since then I’ve written a review of every movie I’ve seen in theaters. In that time I’ve seen well over 200 movies in the theaters almost none of them have been documentaries. I saw Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure in theaters back in 2008 and that’s been about it. That isn’t to say I’m not knowledgeable about modern documentaries, in fact I see about a dozen or so every year, but I don’t really do it in theaters. Why is that? Well, it’s mostly a matter of economics. With unlimited time and money I’d be at the theater every day seeing every movie, but with my limited resources I sort of need to prioritize and feature length fiction is simply the meat and potatoes of my film diet while documentaries have sort of been a sideshow. It’s not that I disrespect documentary filmmaking or anything, but I do view it as kind of a separate thing in much the way I think a non-fiction book is different from a novel, which is why I don’t really include docs on my top ten lists and generally tend to wait until they come out on DVD to see them.
So what was it about the new Laura Poitras that got me to buck that trend and head to the theaters to see a documentary? A lot of it has to do with the film’s hyper relevance. This is a movie that is not just being discussed amongst film aficionados; it’s also being heavily discussed in political and general media circles and it’s quickly becoming clear that it’s a film that needs to be seen in order to keep up with the zeitgeist. This is, after all, about the story of the year: the Edward Snowden leaks. Not only that but it’s being told by a documentarian who has been in on the story from day one. Filmmaker Laura Poitras was in fact the person that Edward Snowden first managed to contact securely as was, along with journalist Glen Greenwald, the person who Snowden met that faithful day in a Hong Kong hotel in order to spill the beans on the government’s domestic and international privacy breaches. This meeting is in fact the centerpiece of Citizenfour, we see the journalists set up a shoot in the hotel room and nervously conduct an impromptu interview, not necessarily one meant for public consumption but more to collect data. They then report it and wait to see what the public reaction will be.
Citizenfour is not necessarily meant to serve as an all-encompassing survey of the entire Snowden Affair, and while it doesn’t entirely throw the audience into the deep end without explanation, it does generally expect its audience to have some familiarity with the story going in. Instead, the point of the film seems to be to present the process of putting together and distributing a major leak to the public. It is somewhat remarkable that this video footage exists at all. We’re never going to see video documentation of Woodward and Bernstein meeting with Deepthroat but we do get to see what it looked like when Snowden explained PRISM to Greenwald and Poitras. This footage with Snowden himself is probably about 30 to 40 percent of the film. The rest of the film focuses on a variety of other subjects who are either responding directly to the leaks or who are just generally commenting on the implications of government surveillance. Some of this material seems a little random, but for the most part it comes together and presents an argument.
There is one big problem with Citizenfour and that’s that the movie doesn’t really have an ending. This is of course because the Snowden story hasn’t fully played out in real life, but it’s still a problem when looking at the documentary as a narrative. The film’s most compelling character, Snowden, disappears from the film about half way through because Poitras has to leave Hong Kong. Snowden only returns to the film for a short piece filmed in Russia which almost feels like a cliffhanger in the way it wraps up. No doubt Poitras is still working on this story and I wouldn’t be shocked at all if she ends up releasing a follow-up film sometime in the future that may wrap things up, but as it stands the film feels incomplete and that is a definite sore spot. Still, I do think this is a pretty damn solid documentary, and one that anyone with even the slightest interest in the NSA spying scandal should definitely see.
***1/2 out of Four