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CITIZENFOUR (2014) review

March 7, 2015


produced by: Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky
directed by: Laura Poitras
rating: R (for language)
runtime: 114 min.
U.S. release date: October 24, 2014


I didn’t grow up in the 1970s, but the paranoia thrillers that were so popular that decade resonates deeply. I’ve become increasingly riddled with a bubbling technophobia, a skepticism and caution around cell phones and laptops and the intrusive role they’ve taken. Studies tell us it is an addiction. That may be so, but the fear comes from something deeper. As didactic science-fiction has been writing for a century, technology will rule. It has gone from the elite to a normalized commodity for all society, a reliance that will permeate and take a strong hold. For 2015, and for the last expanse of years, there is no question.

The great sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, responsible for the stories that birthed amazing cinema like “Blade Runner” and “Minority Report” (let’s get an “Eternal Sunshine” memory wipe for John Woo’s Dick adaptation “Paycheck”), has adeptly captured the master-slave relationship between people and tech. When millions compulsively check Facebook every hour and slip out the smartphone to spot new texts, snaps, tweets, instagram posts, tinder alerts, and emails, often in the place of conversation and observation of their surroundings, who’s controlling which?

There’s an issue of agency with technology, and the whispered acknowledgement that the more we indulge internet culture the more we feed a monster most comfortably forgotten. That monster’s name is privacy, and consequently our rights for it, if we have any, whether we should, and the push-pull between suspending it for the greater good (the greater good). When Edward Snowden followed the footsteps of controversial WikiLeaks head Julian Assange and leaked thousands of documents to the press, every Orwellion quip uttered from 1948 to 1984 to 2013 (when Snowden went public) suddenly turned caustic. Conspiracy junkies, or, really, anyone who spent a lot of time on the internet (or deliberately a lot of time off of it) were given validation to gloat. Every text, email, credit purchase, and even movement (thanks to GPS on your beloved smartphone) has been databased, primed and ready to scan your life and see what parts of it justify further voyeurism by the Government. Tinfoil hats now don’t seem so ridiculous.




Citizenfour is a documentary following Snowden’s coming out and chronicling the intimate and internal struggle he, and the reporters he recruited to help him (namely and Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald), experienced over the six days they met in Hong Kong. The film goes beyond the first principal city, but most time is spent in a hotel room. In that singular way, “Citizenfour” embodies the qualities of a one-room spy suspense thriller, a sort of The Parallax View meets Rope. It might be the first, or the first contemporary, real-life spy thriller. Putting aside squabbles over whether or not documentary film can ever truly be “objective,” it plays true to the source in real time, appropriately captured in cinéma vérité realism.

In one harrowing moment that haunts me even as I type this in my office, Snowden realizes he’s made a mistake and is forthcoming in announcing his error. He forgot to disconnect the hotel room phone which can be hijacked by the NSA, CIA, or any other alphabet soup mess of letters that represent spy agencies. Any speaker, camera, or device, Snowden tells us, is as good as any spy agency’s. Instantly came to mind The Matrix when Morpheus warns Neo any person still connected to the Matrix can be remotely transformed into an Agent. But that was science-fiction, and this is real. What should seem like an obvious thing to say now is that a science-fiction film, of course, bears the qualities of science-fiction, and real life embodies reality. “Citizenfour” shows the abstracted line between science-fiction and reality.

The claim that “Citizenfour” is apolitical is as obvious as it is incorrect. It is deeply, fiercely political, but clever enough to allow the raw power of the circumstance drive you to your own conclusions. Whether or not you agree with Snowden’s actions, what watching this terrifying documentary that haunts like a malevolent spirit does is make it impossible not to understand the same ethical outrage that motivated Snowden in the first place. What the world’s governments can do and what we see them try to do to both Snowden and Greenwald in the duration of the film’s two hour length is going to change the face of spy novels and cinema. Spy fiction authors and screenwriters will have to step up their game; The United States Government is a tour de force of morally bankrupt conspiracy thriller sensationalism that will be hard to top.








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