Topical documentaries are tricky business. Just because a movie is about a current and vibrant topic doesn’t mean it make for a good movie. Citizenfour puts us in the room with infamous whistleblower Edward Snowden, but it tries to create an aura of paranoia that feels presumptuous, even though the material suggests the paranoia is real. Its lack of subtlety always threatens to undermine the more serious material.
Filmmaker and documentarian Laura Poitras was in the process of assembling her next film in January 2013 when she began receiving anonymous, encrypted e-mails claiming to have evidence of illegal surveillance programs at home and abroad. Months later, with reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill, they head to Hong Kong for the first of many meetings with the man who would turn out to be Edward Snowden. With her camera rolling and things unfolding by the minute, she catches history as it happens.
This is where the line between filmmaking and journalistic integrity gets blurred. Citizenfour is a solid piece of reporting that’s far better than a truncated TV news magazine on the same subject, but as a documentary film it’s underwhelming, and playing only primarily to people already well versed in the Edward Snowden saga.
Self-billed as the final installment in Poitras’ trilogy of films about America in a post 9/11 landscape, it’s well assembled and interesting affair, which is no small feat considering the complexities of Snowden’s current situation. However, while she presents it all in a clear enough fashion (at least as clear as she can while making a movie about ongoing events), she loses sight of Snowden’s contributions by creating a somewhat heavy-handed macrocosm.
Too much of the movie plays out in terribly static fashion, with extended shots and sequences of Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel room just looking paranoid and scared out of his mind. I’m certainly not saying he doesn’t have just cause, but that tension diffuses into boredom because Poitras’ leans on it as a visual device far too much. After the third or fourth set of worried looks, the point has been made and never gets made in a new or refreshing way again.
Some more exposition on Citizenfour would have also been a nice thing. Not only to round out the story, but to make it feel a little more experiential and ambitious. It should feel like four people attempting to uncover an unseen truth, but it’s conveyed in a didactic manner that suggests everyone has the answers already. It’s even more presumptuous when the film focuses on someone who will become one of the most infamous political firebrands of this still young century.
Instead we get dull, in the moment reporting that assumes we already know as much about these events as the filmmaker does, and even she doesn’t have the answers to any questions being posed. While no one can doubt the immediacy of the issue, it’s a flawed film that requires you to do homework before going in. That’s admirable in, but what you read might make you care more about the subject than the film’s presumptuous tone.