Citizenfour Scores a 10
If you never want to see a bad film in the theater again, I suggest you limit your viewing to documentaries. They are far better on average than fictional fare. Case in point: "Citizenfour."
"Citizenfour" tells the story of Edward Snowden's leak of NSA documents. Those documents reveal how our government, with the cooperation of major telecom and internet companies, has been surveilling our electronic communications. Moreover, our government has been spying on electronic communications around the world. You might ask, "Haven't they been doing this for years?" Yes, they have, but that was mainly (not exclusively, unfortunately) when there was probably cause, a warrant, or a history of criminal activity of the target. They have now been looking at everyone's communications without cause, and this can have a chilling effect on private communications and thought, journalism and our right to petition the government.
"Citizenfour" hits all the marks of a good documentary: it is topical, relevant, well organized and thought provoking. It is quietly dramatic and not overblown. In fact, the director could have manufactured more drama out of the subject through editing and dramatic music if desired. The restraint serves the film well.
Filmmaker Laura Poitras interviews Edward Snowden from the time he leaves his job at Booz Allen as an NSA analyst to leak the famous NSA documents that reports the spying programs up to the time his identity as the NSA whistle-blower is revealed. I thought I knew enough about this case, that there was no need to see this movie. I was wrong. Throughout the film, we see Snowden explain his decision making process, and what we see is revelatory. If people thought that Snowden was in it for fame or attention, watching this film will change that perception. Snowden was dismayed at the government surveillance of ordinary citizens and made a choice to leak that information. He did not name names and as far as he is concerned, did not reveal any information vital to U.S. security.
Heads of the NSA and other security agencies are shown in the film denying the existence of the surveillance program to Congress and on news programs. Other whistle-blowers or people investigating the program are interviewed or shown testifying such as former NSA intelligence agent William Binney. As the movie unfolds, so do the revelations of the extent of the spying program as it did in the London Guardian and other media outlets. First, U.S. domestic spying was revealed, then international spying, then spying on officials in other countries, even German Chancellor Merkel. Suffice to say, I knew some about the program but not the extent and the manner in which it unfolded.
What the film did was allow Snowden and Greenwald to take control of their own narrative, wrest it away from the mainstream media and government propaganda machine. Some of the shots in the movie start out of focus because Poitras started filming when something important was being said and to cut the takes for focus issues would have been unnecessary. Besides, the focusing was metaphorical of the main characters', Snowden and Greenwald, attempt to get a focus on the issues. We are brought along in this process. More effects and camera tricks could have been used to enhance the drama in the film, but the director wisely made a choice to focus on the content and characters. "Citizenfour", unlike all the overly dramatic movies from Hollywood, is a case of substance over style.
Rating: Pay Full Price, see it twice
There is little to complain about in the film other than I wanted more. The cinematography is not award winning, but it's exactly what the film needed. The timing in the film and editing were excellent. The director's choices were precisely what this story required.
Peace, Tex Shelters