Posted by Joel Copling on November 21, 2014

"Citizenfour" tells us a story that we've seen before--not because we might have actually followed the story as it unfolded during the summer of 2013, but because whistleblowers have whistleblown details regarding the inner workings of government since time immemorial. For instance, less than 24 hours after the end of President George W. Bush's administration in January 2009, Russell Tice, a former analyst at the National Security Agency, came forward on MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" to highlight the significant changes to the United States' surveillance policy since the events of September 11, 2001, spawned the Patriot Act--particularly the mass recording and logging of the digital communications of the American people in the name of "national security." When host Keith Olbermann pointedly asked whether these records would include the phone conversations between him and his nephew; Tice's response: "It would be everything."

Fast-forward four years from then, and we find political filmmaker Laura Poitras receiving an email from someone designating himself as "Citizen Four." He claims to be an official in the U.S. government who has information that will open the flood gates of investigation into the actions of the NSA. He is aware of the high level of risk with which he is currently tampering, but he feels that the dissemination of the information is of more import than his freedom as an individual. Their series of conversations, which take place over the course of eight days in June 2013, reveals a troubled, paranoid individual who is frightened of what's over his shoulder.

We are speaking, of course, about Edward Snowden, the controversial figure who set news stations on fire with his revelation that the NSA has been tracking and logging American citizens with certainly nothing approaching consent or permission. He has left his home Stateside to find political refuge in China, from where Poitras and a pair of journalists from The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, interview him. He is open with all information, giving even his full name and the understanding that they are to soldier on if he is imprisoned, as he is sure he will be. The answers are as technical as the questions themselves, delving deep into the mire of specific methods of the NSA's illegal surveillance.

Whether we understand these specifics is generally irrelevant to the overall effect of "Citizenfour," whose main problem is a lack of much structural ambition. It's a pretty simple movie, all things considered, merely laying out a series of conversations and then cutting away from them occasionally as Snowden must go into hiding elsewhere and news stations play the breaking of the story with a tone of either deep skepticism or incredulity. Poitras clearly has a bias in Snowden's favor, too (Whatever one thinks about the man, Snowden certainly sparked a debate about privacy and what its definition should be in this post-9/11 society; it is clear on which side of that debate Poitras falls), but it is of little matter: "Citizenfour" still astutely takes our government to task.

Film Information

A documentary directed by Laura Poitras.

Rated R (language).

114 minutes.

Released in select cities on October 24, 2014.