Friday 6 March 2015

Citizenfour (2015) - Movie Review

Given my relative infancy when it comes to talking films, I find myself once again stepping into new territory with today’s review. As a rule, I don’t usually actively go after documentaries unless they stand out in some special way. And when I say "special", I mean the kind of special that results in the literal one-joke film The Aristocrats or the rather bluntly-titled Fuck. Then again, considering how my favourite film of last year turned out to be a documentary, I have since grown a bit warmer to the idea. So, with the announcement that this film won the Oscar for Best Documentary hitting literally minutes before seeing it for myself, this has a certain amount of hype to it. Or at least it would, if the Oscars had any kind of significance, but that’s neither here nor there. Time to crack into today’s film already.

The plot: Edward Snowden, under the alias Citizenfour, sends encrypted emails to two journalists containing information of the underhanded dealings of the NSA. One of the people contacted is Glenn Greenwald, a travel writer for The Guardian, and the other is Laura Poitras, a documentary filmmaker whose previous works have brought her under fire from the US government. They soon arrange to meet in person to discuss how, and if, they release the information to the general public. As their plans go ahead and the media begins to take notice, they find themselves under the eye of the US government and need to be careful about their next steps.

If there is any questioning about why I still included my usual plot synopsis when I’m reviewing a documentary, the details of it should answer as to why that is. The details talked about within the film, not to mention a lot of the background information around the film and what director Laura Poitras had to do to make sure nothing happened to it, show a very definite case of truth being stranger than fiction; or, at the very least, more compelling than fiction on some days. This honestly feels like the closest Western cinema will get to its own version of Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not A Film, even if the political atmosphere surrounding isn’t quite as suffocating here as in that film. The main crux of the film, discussing the Snowden documents about the NSA’s acts of surveillance and wire-tapping of US citizens, is a bit grim to think about too much and seems designed to heighten levels of paranoia in people.

I will admit, being as connected to my laptop as I am, I go through life assuming I have government agents checking what colour my urine is in the morning, but there’s a difference between regular paranoia that almost everyone has on some level, and seeing evidence that said paranoia is justified. Basically, it’s one thing to be scared of giant winged spiders; it’s another to see one perched on your neighbor’s roof. The facts are laid bare on the screen, perhaps a little too bare as there really doesn’t seem to have been much done about translating the rather heavy technical jargon into digestible English. However, what makes this fact odd is that it almost feels like the film lampshades that fact in one scene where Greenwald admits that he himself doesn’t fully understand all the specifics but that he understands the main idea behind it all… and that it is rather terrifying.

I don’t usually point at other reviews for movies I look at, mostly because I have enough to worry about concerning competition without directly mentioning other, (possibly) better reviews you could be reading, but here I’m making an exception because this is kind of baffling to me. Alex Lyda of the Chicago Tribune (The article itself is online subscription-exclusive, so I can't link to it. It has recently been made free-to-view again) gave quite a bit of criticism towards this film because Snowden comes across like a narcissist. I question this for the simple reason that since when did unfavorable subject matter make a documentary itself bad? If that were the case, Chicken Hawk: Men Who Love Boys should be called the worst film ever made. This might come down to a matter of opinion but yes, I agree with the assessment that he is narcissistic, but no, I don’t see that as a fault of the film itself.

Throughout, we see Snowden try to paint himself as a martyr for his cause, not to mention portraying a lot of mock humility where he claims that he doesn’t want the story to be about him and yet seems to take a certain amount of pride in how much coverage he’s getting, but this in no way comes across as a flaw. Given how Snowden himself reached out to Poitras to share his information and she agreed to such things, not to mention Poitras’ own political stances given her previous work, the possibility of directorial bias is rather high. But considering how nothing about what the camera catches about Snowden is held back, meaning his psychological flaws are on full display and the audience sees Snowden for who he really is, it feels like Poitras did exactly what a documentarian should do: Point the camera and let it happen; hardly as 'fawning' as Lyda claimed it to be.

It would have been simple to just show the three main people, along with a few others who get involved, and just left it at that but Poitras seems to have also done a decent job of giving three-dimensions to the core people involved. Snowden, pompous though he may be, still comes across an actual human being and not as any kind of saintly figure or as just a cipher for the rather eerie information to be delivered by. He is shown here as having a rather self-deprecating sense of humour, enough of a sense of right and wrong to know what it is that he’s doing, not to mention apparently liking songs by Selena Gomez. Yeah, there’s a slightly out-of-place scene where Snowden is shown working on his computer while Gomez’s Come & Get It is playing on the TV. While I could read into the song playing during the scene as a metaphor for Snowden actively wanting the government to come after him ("When you’re ready, come & get it"), I will avoid my inner pretentious film school douchebag for once and just say that this helps humanise him in the eyes of the audience. I honestly wish they had stuck to this kind of diegetic soundtrack, instead of the sparse Nine Inch Nails instrumentals they went with, but then again said instrumentals work as well when they’re used.

Getting back on topic before another tangent rears its ugly head, Greenwald gets a fair amount of screen time as well, showing the strain he’s under to not only reveal the information, but how much and what consequences may come his way as a result. This, combined with the scenes prior to Snowden’s appearance that show previous incidents of people being suspicious of the NSA’s doings, helps keep this from being too focused on Snowden and helping keep its thematic eye on the information itself.

All in all, Citizenfour is a film whose central idea, that our every move is being watched, is definite paranoia fuel but fuel that is incredibly well-executed and delivers serious chills. Given how my country’s current prime minister is lobbying for similar data laws over here, this is another case much like Selma where the timing of the film’s release is a little too apt. I may not hold as much stock and/or importance to the subject matter as others, I won’t deny that its portrayal of the people involved as well as the handling of the information is expertly delivered, even if it isn’t entirely legible. Even for those who see Snowden as a traitor or up himself or otherwise, I would still recommend seeing this. That is, if you can hold off on letting the NSA stuff make you eye everything suspiciously for cameras.

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