In simple entertainment terms Citizenfour isn’t as interesting as watching paint dry. It is more like watching someone else watching paint dry.
People with opinions on Edward Snowden tend to divide into those who think he’s one of the biggest heroes of all time and those who think he’s at least one of the worst patsies or traitors of all time. Either way it’s hard to imagine why either party would want to watch two hours of footage of him typing on a keyboard. And then typing some more. While the camera focuses on him from the other side of the keyboard. For a very long time.
Neither is it obvious why we should wish to watch footage of him staring out of a window. Or gelling his hair. Both are fine things to do, and director Laura Poitras doubtless thinks it shows us that Edward Snowden is a real, live human being. But why the longeurs? Do we have to see his entire hair-sculpting arrangements? Wouldn’t a before and after have done the job? But here is the problem – Laura Poitras’s film on Edward Snowden isn’t really film-making. In the same way that the activities of her co-conspirator Glenn Greenwald aren’t really journalism. This is activism.
Poitras, readers will recall, was the filmmaker who along with US activist Glenn Greenwald, was contacted by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in order that he could spill thousands of documents relating to British and American government data-gathering. ‘Citizenfour’ was the name he used in their early communications. Eventually they all met up in a hotel room in Hong Kong. Greenwald took the notes and Poitras took the footage. Occasionally they were joined by Ewen MacAskill of the Guardian. The ‘action’ nearly all takes place in this one hotel room.
As a historical source I suppose this has some interest. In the same way that it would be interesting to have video footage of Guy Burgess or Kim Philby in the moments after they decided to sell their country to the Soviets. Of course Snowden’s defenders will deplore any such comparison. But it isn’t inaccurate. Because although Snowden chose to pour out his stolen data to two notorious far-left activists, it is China (where Snowden first sought sanctuary), Russia (where he now resides as a guest of Vladimir Putin) and terrorist groups everywhere who have really benefited from his work.
Of course the Guardian, eager to whitewash its own behaviour in all this, has already hailed the film as ‘victorious’ and claims that the film ‘vindicates' Snowden. It certainly aims to do so. And it will attract those who share the subject’s politics. But for us non-acolytes this is thin gruel, with perhaps half a dozen moments to inadvertently enliven it.
For instance there is the footage early on of a meeting of Occupy protestors being given advice in how to evade detection. Would anybody who thinks they are under surveillance by the government please raise their hand? Almost everyone does. This is the narcissistic as well as paranoid mindset at full throttle. And a world in which Snowden is a natural hero. The film has another revealing moment while Snowden is spilling NSA and GCHQ data to his chosen activists in Hong Kong. A fire alarm test occurs. It rings out and then stops. Everyone freezes. What was that?’ This scene goes on interminably, with Snowden eventually calling the hotel reception and asking them what the ringing is. It is a fire alarm test. Snowden, Greenwald et al sit around a while longer. There is more ‘Oh my god’, teenage girl chat. It is all ‘weird’ and something which ‘hasn’t happened before'. Sure. Most hotels don’t do fire alarm tests all the time. If they did then people wouldn’t stay in them. But hotels do have to do them sometimes. Though apparently not in Snowden-Greenwald-Poitras world where the CIA, FBI, GCHQ and NSA are at any moment ready to kick down your door. Or make you bore each other to death by talking about the fire alarm.
If the paranoid mindset is central to the worldview of Snowden and his supporters, so is a very distinct set of foreign policy presumptions. For instance Snowden and co. refer to unmanned drones as ‘murder drones’. A revealing phrase. Poitras, Greenwald, Snowden et al clearly abhor the use of unmanned drones despite the fact that those drones have in recent years magnificently degraded the capabilities of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. And despite the fact that the casualty rates of people not the subject of the strikes are a fraction of the number of people killed collaterally through any other form of warfare. Anyone who doubts that should simply study the figures for bystander deaths from drone strikes versus those when you send in a conventional army. But the Snowdenista world view does not take this sort of thing into account.
So why did he do it? The reason Snowden gives in the film seems clear. He is one of that generation of naives who thought the internet would fundamentally transform human nature, making us all liberated and knowledgeable and free. He seems disappointed in human nature, disappointed that spies spy and disappointed that a generation which chose to pour all its personal information into cyberspace might now find some of its information to be accessible to others.
If this seems an unsatisfactory explanation, it's because it is. Because in full activist mode Poitras and Greenwald ask none of the questions which need to be asked of Snowden. Perhaps he wasn’t intentionally working for a foreign power. But is he sure he knew who he had connected with in his career and who had influenced him? Early on, speaking to Poitras, Snowden refers to himself being ‘nailed to the cross’. A narcissist, certainly. A messiah complex, undoubtedly. What more do we learn from this film? Very little. Perhaps one day someone will make a film which hears from the people who know what they are talking about in the intelligence field, and who will tell the stories of the way in which terrorist groups adapted, evaded observation and went ‘dark’ on our intelligence agencies because NSA contractor Edward Snowden, instead of going to his bosses and questioning any single programme he thought trod over his own ideals, decided instead to go to two well known anti-American activists and then run to the protective embrace of Vladimir Putin.
Next time citizens in the UK or US suffer a terrorist attack and ask ‘why didn’t the security services know?’ one answer will be ‘because Snowden, Greenwald, Poitras and co. were having too much fun making life difficult for them’. At the end of this film we see Snowden in his new house in Russia, cooking dinner with the girlfriend who has joined him. It won’t be the last we see of him. But nor will there be much more. Even Vladimir Putin will one day tire of having the same warm-up act for himself on Russian state media. What happens to Snowden after that could be a subject for a genuinely interesting film.