MOVIE REVIEW: CITIZENFOUR / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: LAURA POITRAS / SCREENPLAY: N/A / STARRING: EDWARD SNOWDEN, GLENN GREENWALD, WILLIAM BINNEY, JACOB APPELBAUM, EDWARD MACASKILL / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Directed by Laura Poitras and executive produced by Steven Soderbergh, Citizenfour is the story of Edward Snowden and his whistleblowing revelations about US surveillance, which broke headlines in 2013. The documentary was made under extraordinary amounts of secrecy and consisted largely of Snowden, Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill together in the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong during the period when all the revelations broke out. The trailer for the film sells it as a chilling thriller in the mould of something like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and frankly, it’s not a million miles off.
The film does a very good job of telling the story of this man who was once an NSA contractor that became very disenchanted that he was essentially working on technology that he believed was part of a repressive state of technology and decided to go public with this information, only to end up finding himself in a position he found very threatening. Snowden then got in touch with Poitras, who impressed greatly with My Country, My Country and The Oath.
The whole film plays out almost like a spy thriller with encrypted emails being passed, arrangements to meet in foreign locales where there will be codewords and phrases being exchanged, and the bulk of the film takes place in this hotel room during the eight days when the revelations start going public and everything becomes incredibly frenzied. The most impressive thing about the film is that, firstly, it manages to make a very complicated story of surveillance technology fairly understandable to a mainstream audience.
Secondly, it manages to make the most of its confines, and even though it mostly takes place in a hotel room with people at laptops, it still manages to be very intriguing and fascinating. The reason is that there is this oppressive state of paranoia seeded throughout and there is a moment when Snowden points out that any type of phone can be used as a bug, and as a result, you become as paranoid as the people in the film.
Also, if you look back at the films that were made about Julian Assange (We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks and The Fifth Estate), they attempted to pick apart Assange’s personality on the one hand, rather than what he did, because Assange’s personality is completely overbearing and egomaniacal. In the case of Snowden, he’s completely the opposite. He’s almost a secretive person, somewhat camera-shy and doesn’t want the whole story to be solely about him.
The low-key, haunting symphonic soundtrack from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross brilliantly blurs the line between reality and artificial, and the end of the movie does convince you that the surveillance industry has gone out of control. Even though the film was made under difficult circumstances and proposes risks to the participants involved, Citizenfour is an important historical event that is well told in proper dramatic fashion, and if you want a riveting spy thriller that even John le Carré couldn’t have dreamt of, then this will satisfy you. It’s a solid piece of cinema that offers a fascinating portrait of a man who appears to be doing something for honourable reasons, yet is caught in a circumstance in which he’s accounted for despite not wanting to be the centre of the story.
Expected Rating: 8 out of 10
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