4 stars
There is one simple reason why you should see this film. Not for the Oscar buzz, nor the subject matter per se (as fascinating as it is).
The reason to sit down with this quite provocative documentary is the one of a kind, never to be repeated offer from Citizenfour; an opportunity to see world-changing history unfold. For here is the moment, the very moment that Edward Snowden revealed what he knew about the US Government's spying operations. And as we've since learned, he knew what no one else was ever supposed to find out.

Although the National Security Agency denied time and again that they collected data, clearly they did. A very efficient machine had been built for the job that not only spied on US citizens, but spread its interests across the globe. One of its analysts, a young Edward Snowden, calmly and quietly decided that these operations were not for the greater good and elected to tell the world. In covert circumstances which open the film, illuminating the degree of caution that all parties had to take, he contacted filmmaker Laura Poitras and Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. They met in secret in Hong Kong, and while the 29 year Snowden told his story, Poitras filmed what happened.

What happened proved to be explosive. Details of the NSA's operations are jaw-dropping in their audacity: drones operated by remote desktop capable of surveillance half a world away, VOIP telephones routinely turned into bugs to spy on ordinary people, metadata scooped and sorted without permission such that a profile could be made of any person, anywhere: persons of interest (Julian Assange), heads of state (Angela Merkel), criminals, agitators, people going about their business, people who post unwisely on Facebook, people like you and me.

Watching Citizenfour is like being inside a John Le Carré novel. Poitras reveals events from within the closed room in tandem with chaos as it erupts outside once Greenwald's articles are published. Opposed to conventional exposé treatments, she is more interested in revealing the man than his revelations (although a significant amount of time is devoted to that as well). Because of the depth of the human touch (Snowden silently contemplates his future, Snowden shaves), some scenes linger uncomfortably. Yet this seemingly soggy style serves to further illuminate the man as we see first hand what makes him tick. He's not a sensationalist, ego-driven maniac, nor the self-serving terrorist some right wing commentators would have you believe. He is a cool, articulate young man who acted for, in his mind at least, the most noble of reasons.

Due to of the immediacy of Poitras's fly-on-the-wall technique, there comes a point when you desperately want to escape the film's menace and claustrophobia. The more Snowden reveals, the more paranoid you become watching it. Consider that just by reading this review, online robots have linked you through your ISP with one of America's most-wanted. And if you think that sounds ridiculous, watch this film to see if you feel the same way afterwards.

// Colin Fraser

Previewed at The Reel Room, Sydney, on 29 January 2015


Edward Snowden
Glenn Greenwald

Laura Poitras

Laura Poitras

USA / Germany


114 minutes

February 12, 2015
Citizenfour (2014) on IMDb