An unassuming young man paces around his hotel room. He plugs and unplugs the phone, shaves his beard, gels his hair into a different shape, tries on a hat. He tries to book a taxi under a false name. And eventually he leaves the hotel, going straight to the UN building, where he will seek asylum. Because his name is Edward Snowden, and he is America’s most wanted man.
If the script for ‘CitizenFour’ were pushed under the door, any self-respecting film studio executive would surely reject it as ridiculously far-fetched. Journalist receives secret, anonymous tip from high-placed source about the mind-boggling amount, means and extent of state surveillance, and promises that there’s lots, lots more to come. And that person wants nothing other than for the information to come out, and he doesn’t mind what happens to him, as long as this happens. So far, so Le Carre, but where’s the catch? What does that person really want? Or, more cautiously, who might he be working for? It all sounds a bit extraordinary.
But that really is the story, and it’s told first-hand in ‘CitizenFour’, the name Edward Snowden gave himself when he first contacted filmmaker Laura Poitras, herself the subject of much interest once she started making films questioning the US’s security activities.
When Laura travelled with reporter Glenn Greenwald to meet Snowden, government IT specialist turned whistle blower, in a Hong Kong hotel room, she took her cameras with her. The result is this, an extraordinarily intimate account of what exactly happens in this day and age when a young man decides to leave behind his life as he knows it, and follow his conscience. We see Snowden watching footage of himself on CNN, sending emails of reassurance to his girlfriend of 10 years, who it turns out he left, along with the rest of his existence, while she was on holiday (they are now reunited in Moscow). He muses on what might happen next with little sign of fear although, as he says, “that might change when they kick in the door”. And he explains, so thoroughly and calmly that there can be little doubt, what moved him to throw his rich life in the air and risk martyring himself to expose a system that could easily swallow him whole.
The answer is full-bellied. It includes his disappointment in Barak Obama’s renounced promise to scale back surveillance. It refers to the fear held by many that the state is becoming too powerful to allow for any meaningful opposition. And it includes, sweetly AND alarmingly for a man not yet 30 years old, a sense of nostalgia for an internet not controlled by a small number of huge agents. When Edward Snowden speaks fondly of the early days of the web, he sounds about 100 years old, and he’s probably only referring to that time of discs – remember them?
The film almost elliptically refers to the material that all the fuss is about. We see Greenwald and his cohorts trying to make sense of the information provided by Snowden – the surveillance, the lines of accountability within the US politico-corporate complex, who knows what.
But these mind-boggling stats are already, thanks to the efforts of this lot, in the public domain. Instead, Poitras gives us the personal, not the political, ramifications of Snowden’s choice, or lack of it, once his name is out there.
There is footage of Barak Obama, lamenting the path that Snowden took, making instead the fair point that legal, democratic channels are there for a reason. But Snowden’s modus operandi appears to be vindicated by his treatment as he experiences it from his hotel room – his rent payments frozen at his bank, ‘construction workers’ filling his road at home in the States, his passport frozen.
Of course, at this point in the film, the viewer actually knows know more than the US Government about what has occurred, and who by.
It is left to Greenwald to make the point that the security services will be dealing correctly with what they perceive as an enormous physical threat, the hand of a foreign enemy agent, anything, in fact, except the truth of what we have in front of us - the bizarre but true explanation of someone more threatened by intrusions of privacy and constrictions of intellectual knowledge than any thought of physical imprisonment.
We will never know what would have happened to Edward Snowden, had he acquitted himself of these democratic, legal channels advocated by Obama. Instead, he sits it out in Russia, visited in the concluding part of the film by Greenwald, with news of another source, now working with journalist Jeremy Scahill to expose documentation of the drone/kill program, and who appears to be significantly high up the chain.
Snowden allows himself a grin, warmed by the prospect that he’s not the only one out there. Accordingly, this film may not end up being the only one of its kind, but it will remain unique for its intimate portrait, caught in real time, of a man who escaped a system that is as unknowable and unaccountable as it is familiar. Like I said, extraordinary.
'CITIZENFOUR' will be premiering at the London Film Festival, and screened to 70+ cinemas across the UK on Friday 17 October. The evening will include a live satellite Q&A with filmmaker Laura Poitras. Click here for venue and ticket information.