Matters of identity and personal narrative are no doubt at the center of Laura Poitras’ documentary “Citizenfour.” The film was conceived at the end of 2012 and completed mid-2014, and follows government contractor Edward Snowden and his “political objectives” in making transparent so-called government secrets as he leaked revealing and costly information about the NSA. Snowden’s work ensured widespread exposure of the Agency’s partnerships with telecoms and phone companies like Verizon, in addition to their self-created programs, through which, we hear, an individual’s entire personhood (U.S. citizen or otherwise, as the program’s reach is insidiously global) can be reconstructed through a combination of “linkages”—locations, purchases, cards, transactions—in a series of instrumented invasions of privacy.
For although Poitras is clearly fascinated by the self-myth-making of Snowden and his provocative, intellectual capabilities, she’s also attracted to him as a hugely cinematic subject and self-conscious character. The filmmaker, here in her fourth feature had unprecedented access to Snowden as he eagerly leaked government documents and dense explanations of injustices to two journalists from The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, in spring 2013. Poitras had frequent correspondences with Snowden throughout this time.
The construction of stories and characters is constant in “Citizenfour.” “I woke up this morning and basically started writing stories,” enthuses Greenwald in one moment, defining the film as a meditation on shifts in literary and personal identity and the modes of representations that exist in the modern world through which we can channel our personal narratives and self-created trajectories.
Perhaps the most common image in “Citizenfour” is plain white text on a black background in paragraph structure suddenly transformed—encrypted into a solid block of nonsensical numbers and symbols in space-less confusion. The writing of our personalities, a cold society’s programmatic conformism; all of the “metadata;” our stories and social movements, our collective human face. Poitras tellingly includes news footage that name-checks espionage novelist John le Carré, and includes shots of a book called “Homeland” by Cory Doctorow and a Play-Station gaming system both on Snowden’s dresser. She is suggesting this is a man who thrives on stories; sound familiar, fellow cinephiles?
To this end, in viewing the film, “Citizenfour” was an unexpectedly vital object of cinema, and its composition is undeniably skillful, despite its questionable tendencies as ideological fodder. Poitras favors long, protracted, straight-on shots that often bask in the imposing structures of large urban masses of metal and steel, the impenetrable surfaces of the modern age. As tied to personal perspective as her film is, the director runs into trouble when she turns up the ominousness a touch too much in moments that detrimentally smell like her inner commentary on how important and devastating is. At times, and particularly in the film’s all-too-forced final moments, you simply feel you’re being spun a bit too much.
People who call “Citizenfour” the most “important” film of last year are, at least in part, admitting to being scammed by its cold but unforgettable artistic intrigue, that which is reminiscent of the work of its executive producer Steven Soderbergh. It’s hard not to be enthralled by the film’s director’s formal prowess and the forcefulness of her execution, but one must also question the veracity of her first-person filmmaking approach and what comes across as a relatively unfettered admiration for the modern global politics groundbreaker standing in the forefront of the doc.
In moments, “Citizenfour,” in the way it inevitably involves the personal lives of its makers and subjects and half-crumbles in on itself as a document of a strongly developed connection between three journalistically-minded advocates for governmental integrity and transparency, reminds of Jafar Panahi and Kambozia Partovi’s magnificent recent docu-fiction entry “Closed Curtain.” Like “Citizenfour,” “Closed Curtain” played on the real and imaginative narratives of a highly political figure in a confined space (or progression of confined spaces) and watches as the divergence between fiction and actual experience occurs, collides, and eventually engulfs the aesthetics and thematic content of the films. The only difference is that “Citizenfour[’s]” collision of these worlds isn’t as powerful because it doesn’t mingle well with Poitras’ tone of almost aggressive self-righteousness.
“Citizenfour” admittedly furrows the brow in its unquestioning, bull-headed conviction of its filmic momentum, not stopping adequately to assess the situations and decisions presented with a necessary measuredness. But the movie nonetheless registers as an accomplished piece of polemic advocacy as well as a veritable piece of artfully made filmmaking in its own right.
Furthermore, Poitras’ film is fascinating for the way its aesthetic reflects its topical concerns of surveillance and citizens’ endangered private identities, often playing eerily like otherworldly security camera footage of our culture’s deepest fears and paranoias. “Citizenfour” is certainly more artful than one would expect, but it’s also undeniably resonant.