Magazine article Variety

Doc Grips as Secrets Slip

Magazine article Variety

Doc Grips as Secrets Slip

Article excerpt

Doc Grips as Secrets Slip

No amount of familiarity with whistleblower Edward Snowden and his shocking revelations of the U.S. government's wholesale spying on its own citizens can prepare one for the impact of Laura Poitras' extraordinary documentary "Citizenfour." Far from reconstructing or analyzing a fait accompli, the film tersely records the deed in real time, as Poitras and felcitizenfour I°w journalist Glenn Greenwald meet Snowden over an eight-day period in a Hong Kong hotel room to plot how and when they will unleash the bombshell that shook the world. Adapting the cold language of data encryption to recount a dramatic saga of abuse of power and justified paranoia, Poitras brilliantly demonstrates that information is a weapon that cuts both ways.

"Citizenfour" reps the final installment in the Oscar-nominated Poitras' trilogy on post-9/11 America (following 2006's "My Country, My Country" and 2010's "The Oath"). She was already two years deep into a film about surveillance when contacted by the pseudonymous "Citizenfour," who sought her help in exposing proof of the government's indiscriminate gathering and processing of U.S. citizens' emails, cell-phone conversations, bank accounts and digital transactions. Chosen because she herself had withstood countless invasive acts of targeted surveillance, Poitras quickly agreed. She then convinced Snowden, who had already decided to reveal his identity once his info was safely delivered, to be filmed.

Snowden makes clear that he lacks both the desire and the competence to decide which information to make public; rather, he believes, it is the job of the journalists to whom he transmits the data to avoid releasing any documents that could compromise national security. Snowden voices deep concerns that "personality journalism" may wind up making him the story, rather than his revelations. If he hides, speculation about his identity will dominate the conversation. But if he reveals himself, how can he avoid becoming the media's diversionary target? As it turns out, his apprehensions are well justified, as Snowden becomes a more visible presence and talked-about phenomenon than the NSA betrayal that so profoundly touched billions of lives.

Poitras skillfully avoids casting Snowden as either her hero or the determining focus of her story, instead portraying him as a fascinating, calm, utterly sincere gatherer of unwelcome information whose scientific brain collates and analyzes data with an odd combination of cool distance and deep-seated paranoia (sometimes manifested by his hiding under a blanket, which he ironically dubs his "mantle of power," while accessing sensitive data). …

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