Every once in a while a film comes along that everybody should see but it’s seldom seemed so urgent than with Laura Poitras’ extraordinary documentary, ‘Citizenfour’, even for those who have followed the story closely and think they have its measure; so much more sinister the activities of the US and UK secret services when we hear everything firsthand from a former insider now firmly in the freezing cold on the outside.
The most important documentary exposé since ‘Taxi to the Dark Side’, it brings a sober clarity to a scandal that ‘criminals’ in government had kept under wraps, absurdly hiding behind 9/11 intelligence activities and bestowing a traitor status on a whistleblower – a word loaded with White House friendly connotations – for spilling the beans on a new kind of tyranny for the digital age.
This is an episode that’s not so much stranger than fiction but the stuff of a Len Deighton spy novel with former NSA man, Edward Snowden, meeting journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill in a Hong Kong hotel room after clock-and-dagger coded exchanges with the filmmaker and giving a blow by blow account over eight days of how so-called democratic governments snoop on all their citizens KGB style, indiscriminately monitoring e-mails, Internet activity and mobile calls.
And it plays as if in real time, having a similar immediacy to Formula 1 doc, ‘Senna’, with Poitras editing interviews alongside Snowden watching the TV coverage of Greenwald dropping his daily media bombs; the cause and effect brilliantly wrapped into one and accelerating the inevitable point that Snowden’s cover is blown.
But it’s also a remarkable documentary portrait of Snowden himself as he selflessly and knowingly sacrifices his liberty for the right reasons and goes out of his way to avoid a Julian Assange style celebrity status; it’s almost impossible not to be seriously impressed.
Obama comes across as ridiculous when claiming that an investigation was already under way before Snowden’s revelations and there are deeply troubling references to a UK cover up from the top – presumably, Cameron – into GCHQ’s “invasive intercept system”, which, according to Snowden, is the envy of even the NSA.
It remains to be seen whether Hollywood will have the guts to award the film a best documentary Oscar but the damage is already done; the irretrievable loss of something that we could once take for granted, privacy.
And the irony of ironies, the former USSR granting Snowden political asylum, will be lost on no one.
It is difficult to know what to make of an unexpected and bizarre ‘Deep Throat’ cliffhanger ending; winding up the authorities with some timely brinkmanship or the precursor for a Watergate moment.
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