What We Learn About Edward Snowden from 'Citizenfour'

In Laura Poitras's controversial documentary “Citizenfour,” Edward Snowden, the elusive whistleblower, is only one piece of the puzzle.
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Edward Snowden Photo

Edward Snowden speaks during an interview in Hong Kong in 2013. (Photo by The Guardian via Getty Images

Edward Snowden, who emerged from obscurity in June 2013 to become the most noteworthy whistleblower since Daniel Ellsberg spilled the beans about the Pentagon Papers in the ‘70s, remained, until recently, a rather shadowy figure. He functioned as a blank screen on which various factions from both the right and left projected antithetical agendas; conservatives and mainstream liberals termed him a “lawbreaker” and even intimated he might be a spy for an enemy power while leftists, as well as some libertarians, hailed him as a hero. Although Guardian journalist Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files provided a much more detailed portrait of the most celebrated—and vilified—activist of our era, it lacked the immediacy of personal testimony that the public, for better or worse, craves.

For this reason, Laura Poitras’s new documentary Citizenfour, the last installment of a trilogy on the War on Terror, has become the most scrutinized non-fiction film of the year. Although Snowden, who initially is merely embodied by encrypted email messages on Poitras’s computer (the “citizenfour of the film’s title), eventually surfaces as an appealing protagonist, the film’s canniest maneuver is to delay his appearance by introducing an array of personalities who share his belief that the National Security Agency’s surveillance program has moved on from focusing exclusively on suspected terrorists to making every American with a computer or cellphone a potential target of invasive snooping. Poitras makes clear that a small constellation of activists paved the way for Snowden’s revelations. 

During an extended prologue, William Binney, a former NSA employee who became a victim of the government’s wrath after revealing the agency’s plans to monitor average American’s Internet searches in the wake of 2001, is shown to be as intransigent as Snowden in his opposition to Orwellian surveillance. Journalist and security expert Jacob Appelbaum demonstrates how a few simple transactions by New York City subway riders—the purchase of a transit pass with a credit or debit card— can produce “metadata” that allows authorities to track a traveller’s every move. Since erroneous conclusions can be derived from the accumulated data, the scenario suggests a possible realization of the late science fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s notion of “pre-crime”—the arrest of individuals for crimes not yet committed.

When Poitras, accompanied by journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, finally catches up with Snowden at Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel, he rails against “modern media” and its focus on “personalities, not the story.” By opening the film with a procession of Snowden’s allies (as well as ominous glimpses of America’s largest “spy center,” “ an NSA outpost in Bluffdale, Utah), and delaying the appearance of the “star,” Poitras honors her subject’s desire to avoid the vacuity of celebrity journalism.

Snowden’s sleight of hand with passwords—and a blanket—can help us preserve our own privacy.

Many critics have already compared Citizenfour to a thriller and, even though we know the outcome, genuine tension ensues when Poitras, Greenwald, and MacAskill camp out in Snowden’s hotel room as he prepares to reveal his identity to the international media. There is a palpable sense of paranoia as Snowden, who fears that the room may be raided at any moment and the hotel phones could be used as surveillance devices, covers his laptop with a blanket in order to prevent access to the computer’s camera and forestall detection of highly sensitive documents. He also chides Greenwald for failing to formulate passwords complex enough to evade being deciphered by the powers that be. On the one hand, it’s arguable that adhering to these procedures might transform us all into potential paranoids. Alternately, it’s equally reasonable to conclude that these simple precautions will be increasingly necessary as the very notion of privacy becomes a quaint remnant of the past. Those who believe they have “nothing to hide” are sadly mistaken.

Despite accusations lobbed in a right-wing smear campaign, Snowden did not abandon Lindsay Mills, his longtime girlfriend.

Moving from a discussion of the implications of state surveillance to a consideration of Snowden’s personal life might seem oddly gossipy. Yet, given that his enemies have tried to discredit him by impugning his character, Citizenfour’s confirmation that the man accused, without a shred of tangible evidence, of spying for the Russians and Chinese is in fact living with Mills in Moscow turns out to be something more than a trivial detail. A simple shot of Snowden and Mills cooking in their Moscow apartment makes mincemeat out of a January 2014 York Daily News claim that the “NSA leaker” (and, by implication, dastardly spy), intended to leave the love of his life “out in the cold.”