Review: Citizenfour

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

PLOT: A documentary about the early days of the Edward Snowden leaks, from the immediate effect on the journalists involved, to Snowden’s attempts to find asylum.

REVIEW: Edward Snowden is a polarizing figure. To some he’s a whistleblower and a hero, while to others he’s a traitor. His fame (or infamy) has grown to such a degree that the notion of CITIZENFOUR winning the Best Documentary Oscar in February seems a foregone conclusion, while Snowden himself is getting the biopic treatment from none-other than Oliver Stone, with Joseph Gordon Levitt in the lead. No matter your take on Snowden, CITIZENFOUR is incendiary entertainment, and a pretty shocking insight into the way the privacy we used to take for granted Is now non-existent.

While Snowden has become an extremely well-known figure since his initial revelations about the NSA’s spying program back in 2013, he’s remained somewhat enigmatic, and CITIZENFOUR doesn’t necessarily mean to change that. Rather, this is confined mostly to the series of meetings Snowden held with director Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong, where he first leaked the classified NSA documents that led to one of the biggest national security scandals in history. Snowden’s past isn’t really examined at length, with this being mostly limited to the footage captured in Hong Kong and its immediate aftermath.

As a result, CITIZENFOUR is unique in that it basically allows the viewer to be a fly on the wall as Snowden blew the whistle on activities that can’t help but boggle the mind, with him essentially revealing that the idea of privacy is dead, regardless of which part of the globe you find yourself in. Snowden’s a calm and collected figure, matter-of-factly revealing everything he knows as he leaks document by document to Greenwald, who suddenly finds himself a white-hot figure, with a new appointment to The Guardian, and dozens of talking-heads spots on CNN in the days following the leaks. Snowden himself understandably shuns the spotlight, although he seems well-aware of the fact that his identity has likely already been compromised, with him making calls to his girlfriend back in the States, who suggests to him that she’s being followed. Snowden calmly acknowledges that he may well lose his freedom for the leaks he’s making (as an independent contractor hired by the NSA, he has unique access to Top Secret documents full-agents wouldn’t be able to see).

Snowden seems like a bright, conscientious fellow, laying out the NSA’s activities in laymen’s terms making CITIZENFOUR an easy film to follow even if you don’t know much about Snowden’s story or claims. He barely ever loses his cool, except for a brief episode where he becomes convinced that a fire drill in the Hong Kong hotel he’s staying in is a ruse for the authorities to get access to his room and equipment. As the media circus begins to spin out of control, the reality of Snowden’s situation begins to set in on him somewhat as he tries to disguise his appearance (which he does poorly) and somehow find himself sanctuary so he can stay out of the hands of US authorities.

Outside of Snowden, we do get a good set-up introducing us to pre-existing controversy regarding the NSA’s methods, from a court-case involving internet users claiming they were spied on (the slimy, bow-tied NSA attorney cuts a truly venomous figure), to former NSA technical director William Binney, who’s spent years warning people about how the government had virtually unlimited access to citizens personal information and activities.

As far as documentaries go, CITIZENFOUR is incredibly unique and maybe even unprecedented. It’s incredible to have this kind of access to a breaking story. By comparison, imagine if in the Watergate days, Deep Throat hadn’t requested anonymity, and allowed Bob Woodward to film all of the encounters for the entire world to see. It’s a pretty amazing accomplishment, and Poitras, to her credit, keeps the spotlight focused on Snowden and Greenwald, never making herself come off as too much of a participant, but rather an observer whose purpose is to chronicle a rather ominous moment in US history. Obviously this is a must-see and one of the most important films of the year. It’s a pulse-pounding techno-thriller made all the more suspenseful in that’s it’s real.




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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.