CLAUSTROPHOBIC

‘Citizenfour’ Is Mesmerizing (If You Don’t Mind the Omissions)

Citizenfour is a simplistic tale of Snowden and white hats and black hats, where subtlety and context play little roles and the existence of smoke always indicates fire.

10.20.14 9:45 AM ET

About halfway through Laura Poitras’s highly acclaimed new documentary Citizenfour, the film’s key protagonist Edward Snowden offers an explanation to Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill of The Guardian* newspaper as to why he stole thousands, perhaps even millions of classified documents from the National Security Agency and, in the process, put his very freedom at risk.  He inveighs against coercive state power and the manipulation of the Internet (“martial cyber law,” he calls it at one point) as a tool of oppression against the American people. 

The irony that Snowden’s statement is made in a hotel room in Hong Kong—a city-state that has been roiled in recent weeks by pro-democracy demonstrations and is ruled by a government that restricts the access of its more than 1 billion citizens to the Internet (though not Hong Kong), has no free press or right to free speech, and has little popular check on how its power is used against its “people”—is lost on all those present.

It is emblematic of the cognitive dissonance that lies at the heart of not just Poitras’s movie, but also much of the reporting on Snowden’s leaks—where truth and fact has been consistently overwhelmed by propaganda and hyperbole.

Citizenfour, like the reporting done by Greenwald and others, is oriented around a simplistic tale of white hats and black hats, where subtlety and context play little roles and where the existence of smoke always indicates fire. It is at times a mesmerizing film, but only if you don’t look too closely.

In Citizenfour truth is nothing if not a moving target. Early on Poitras features a presentation by Jacob Appelbaum, a so-called “hacktivist,” to a meeting of Occupy activists where he explains how metadata, like phone records or location information can be manipulated to provide an accurate description of one’s life.  The clear and unstated implication is that this capability not only can but also will be used to violate the privacy rights of ordinary Americans.

None of this is proven by the documents Snowden stole. Indeed, 16 months after the initial leak, one is still hard-pressed to point to a single American who’s been harmed by the NSA’s domestic surveillance. This is a point even acknowledged by Greenwald who conceded this year in an NPR interview that there is no evidence the NSA “followed through on … plans” to use “online activities to blackmail people or ruin their reputations, or otherwise coerce and threaten them.”

Of course, Americans have a right to know what their government is capable of doing and the potential for abuse; but they also have the need to know if their rights are in fact being violated. It is a familiar pattern in much of the reporting on the NSA story—a focus on the agency’s capabilities in screaming headlines and only later clarification that there is no evidence these capabilities are being misused.

Of course, every documentary filmmaker tells viewers their version of the truth—but here the gap between fact and fiction is particularly wide. What is left out of Poitras’s highly sympathetic portrayal of Snowden is so much of what we still don’t know about him. For example, why did he steal so many documents that have nothing to do with domestic surveillance but rather overseas—and legal—intelligence-gathering operations?

There is no discussion in Citizenfour of the 11 days between Snowden’s arrival in Hong Kong and his checking into the Mira Hotel; of the three days he allegedly spent in the city’s Russian consulate; of his transit to Russia, his granting of asylum by Moscow and the full role of WikiLeaks in spiriting him out of the country; or the fact that Snowden handed over the operational details of ongoing NSA surveillance in China to the South China Morning Post—an act that even those sympathetic to Snowden, like former NSA analyst William Binney who is featured prominently in the film, call “traitorous.”

Rather the core of the film is Snowden’s de-briefing by Poitras, Greenwald, and MacAskill conducted in Snowden’s cramped hotel room. It gives the movie a claustrophobic feel as though we too are confined to a tiny space, living off room service and constantly looking over our shoulder. It is one of Citizenfour’s most affecting set pieces even if like the rest of the film it drags on far past the point of usefulness.

It also reveals in ways that Poitras likely never intended.

When a fire alarm goes off in the hotel, Snowden seems incapable of shrugging it off—clearly concerned that the NSA may soon be knocking down his door. Snowden openly worries that the agency can see in his hotel room (he puts a red towel over his head at one point to enter a password on his laptop); he says the “NSA police,” who he alleges don’t have to abide by the Constitution, will search his home; he chides Greenwald for his lack of adherence to security protocols; he changes his appearance to avoid detection when he finally leaves the hotel; and when asked by Poitras how his girlfriend is doing he says “she’s alive,” as if a worse alternative is a distinct possibility. 

The presentation is clearly intended to heighten the image of Snowden as a selfless, courageous figure being hounded and pursued by dark, powerful and malevolent forces. But has the opposite effect. It makes Snowden seem like a paranoiac—and lends credence to the notion that he came to see the NSA as a harbinger of an Orwellian surveillance state because of a pre-existing tendency toward out-sized suspicion. It helps that this is a view apparently shared by Poitras. 

It’s long been obvious that Greenwald and Poitras crossed the line from journalism to active collaboration with Snowden (though this doesn’t mean they are also legally culpable). Citizenfour confirms it.  After a while it becomes difficult to separate the reporter from the source. Greenwald actively plots with Snowden to maximize the impact of the information he has stolen both to stick it to the NSA but also help the former NSA analyst achieve his “political objectives.”

The contrast between Greenwald’s strident advocacy and MacAskill’s sober questioning is striking. Greenwald is basically unquestioning of Snowden’s motivation (he’s called “absurd and idiotic” any effort to understand them). He boasts that only days after meeting Snowden he was writing stories about the leaked information, which is an amazing feat considering only months earlier Greenwald didn’t even know how to send and received encrypted e-mails. That he believed he could write knowledgeable and accurate stories about highly technical surveillance programs without doing further, extensive reporting is both astounding and disturbing. When at one point Snowden says that he was too “biased” to figure out which documents he should hand over to the journalists and would instead rely on them to show, apparently, “unbiased judgment” about which ones to release, the irony was once again lost on all.

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But this has been the issue with the NSA scandal from day one. At its core, the tale revealed by the leak of what may be more than a million classified documents is a complicated one. It is a story of how democratic governments balance privacy and national security; of the tools that exist to both protect Americans from terrorism but also further the country’s national security interests; of how the political imperatives to safeguard Americans could potentially violate their most basic rights; and what limits, if any, exist to check the extraordinary capabilities of the NSA. But it’s also a story of on the one hand, the NSA pushing the envelope in both its domestic and international surveillance, but on the other, adhering to the law and being held in check by the FISA Court that oversees it. In the hands of journalists rather than advocates it would make for a fascinating story.

But Poitras and her colleagues have little interest in that sort of shades of gray complexity. Citizenfour is a tale that will undoubtedly appeal to those who have already made up their mind about the rightness of Snowden’s actions—and of the nefariousness of the NSA. Those seeking truth should look elsewhere.

*In the interests of full disclosure the author was previously a columnist at the Guardian.