Laura Poitras' new film bears a quality that most films could only dream of: it is immediately and inextricably relevant to us all. Documenting the intricacies of the NSA surveillance scandal, outed by former NSA contractor and infamous whistleblower Edward Snowden, CitizenFour grips its audience in a chokehold, telling you what's what. It reiterates the true extent to which our private life is not only compromised by covert government level surveillance, but rather completely stripped down and disposed of. By broadcasting this unsavoury truth about our political landscape and daily life, CitizenFour can lay claim to the title of this year's most important film of the year, to be seen and absorbed by all.
Poitras' film is a showcase of the original interviews conducted with Edward Snowden in Hong Kong, originally working under the guise of "CitizenFour", as he reveals the truth about state level surveillance of the general public. Speaking to Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald who originally ran the story in 2013, Snowden confirms that both the US and the UK are using their extensive surveillance capacities to spy on everyday citizens, ludicrously attributing it to their anti-terrorist measures for justification. In short, our world is a world in which which every phone call you make, every email you send, every Google search you do is being watched.
Poitras shows the painstaking measures it took to securely get the message out: meetings in hotel rooms in foreign countries, encrypted emails, the use of codenames. The whole thing smacks of an old style thriller and is made only starker by the fact that it is unshakeably real. In one interview scene, a fire alarm interrupts the proceedings and continues to episodically ring. Snowden calls the hotel reception to inquire as to the reason for the fire alarm, suspecting that it is being done to bring the incriminating interviews to a stop. The hotel confirms that it is just a routine drill. Though it may sound absurd to be unabatedly suspicious, the film suggests that this is an entirely necessary attitude. Indeed, it seems a miracle that this film has even made its way into cinemas, given the digitally autocratic environment in which it is being made.
Given the stark and arguably dystopian nature of the NSA scandal, it is surprising that the world did not see an equally stark and acidic reaction in response. In many ways, until the release of CitizenFour the dialogue surrounding governmental surveillance has fizzled out, the world's political attention having shuffled on, leaving this incredulously black mark on countries purporting to be the bastions of western democracy on the back burner. A more explosive response has been seen from those opposing Snowden, supporting the USA's attempts to bring him to stand trial back in the US. They claim he had no right to exploit the government in their anti-terrorist measures, some claiming that he himself is a terrorist by virtue of his actions. With any luck, CitizenFour should serve to reinvigorate the debate, impressing upon its viewers that, in the words of Snowden himself, "this is not sci-fi- this is real life."
Critics are often accused of being tyrannical, wheeling out phrases such as "you HAVE to see this film", taking to the streets with their washboards in a proselytising manner to proclaim its prowess and quality. Yet, in the case of CitizenFour, such declarations are totally deserved. It is not only a film that deals with its content capably, establishing a strong arc of tension, like any good thriller should. It is a film that can claim to have a wholehearted pertinence. Go and see CitizenFour because it's a gripping film, because it is well made, but most of all because it is important that you do, in an effort to educate yourself about our not-so-idyllic times.