About three-quarters of the audience at the Walker Art Center’s free screening of Citizenfour was older than me, often by decades. The woman who senior-whispered for her companion to explain “POTUS” must have been in her late 80s (I envied her ignorance) and I can’t imagine what she made of all the talk of encryption and SD cards. Not that Laura Poitras’ film is at all opaque. But as NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden demonstrates to Poitras and her fellow middle-aged media collaborator Glenn Greenwald the precautions necessary to communicate electronically with even a slim hope of privacy, the film captures just how daunting the level of technological competence necessary to protest government overreach in the 21st century might feel to the pre-millennial left.
With its cool transitional shots (silent night driving, sterile cityscapes) set to a dark-ambient Trent Reznor soundtrack, Citizenfour inhabits this sleek, moody future, acknowledging the real-life spy-thriller aspects of its subject matter without ratcheting up the melodrama,.With suspense an impossibility — anyone bothering to watch already knows the beans Snowden will spill — Poitras summons foreboding. Commentary from those who have glimpsed U.S. government surveillance from within (most prominently NSA cryptologist-turned-critic William Binney) or have been its targets (including Occupy activists subjected to retina scans, and Poitras herself, who fled from fed scrutiny to Berlin) hints at something big and bad. By the time Booz Allen Hamilton loaner Ed Snowden meets with Greenwald and Poltras to share information he pilfered from an NSA temp gig, the breadth and scope of the program he reveals feels both as inevitable and momentous as the mothership descending over Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters.
There’s an uneasy humor to the scenes with Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel, the mundane institutional blandness of the setting at odds with the significance of his actions. When Snowden drapes himself in a red cloth to hide his laptop work, his precautions feel both exaggerated and useless, the level of surveillance he’s uncovered feels both impossible and painstakingly documented. And though Snowden worries from the start that easy issues of personality will overwhelm the substance of his revelations, Poitras’ film understands how essential his homey drawl is to his message, how unavoidably his face will come to represent the larger issues in play.
Really, you couldn’t cast the guy better — from his first interview with Poitras and Greenwald, he’s remarkably prepossessed but not smug, articulate but not glib, bright but not show-offy. A brief appearance from Julian Assange, attempting unsuccessfully to arrange a flight to a safe country for Snowden after a cancelled passport strands him in Moscow, quietly underscores the contrast between the Wikileaks editor’s anarchic Euro-sinister demeanor and Snowden’s earnest American law-and-order libertarianism.