Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Recent Watches: Citizenfour (2014)

There have been few figures in modern history as contentious as Edward Snowden. During the summer when the news broke, I took my grandmother to a doctor’s appointment. CNN was on in the waiting room. An older man and a woman were talking about what had happened. The man opined loudly about how he considered Snowden a traitor to his country and how he should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I personally do not agree with this. Like most reasonable people, I was outraged by the extent of the NSA’s invasion of privacy. Naturally, a figure as controversial and historically important as Snowden would be attractive to Hollywood. Indeed, “Citizenfour” is only the first of at least two planned films about Snowden. However, “Citizenfour” was filmed with Snowden’s involvement, during the days he leaked the incriminating documents to the media. From the beginning, the documentary was planned as part of Snowden’s actions.

The story actually begins before Snowden ever dropped his documents. He contacted documentary director Laura Poitras before contacting the media. The two had been communicating via encrypted e-mails for some time. Days before he dropped the NSA files, he met with Poitras in a Hong Kong hotel, recording several days worth of interviews. These interviews, along with candid clips of Snowden’s life, comprise a large portion of the film. The second half is focused on the media fall out and the resulting outrage.

As a historical document, “Citizenfour” is invaluable. It’s a hugely intimate peek into the motivations of Snowden. He frankly discusses the things he’s discovered, how this information came into his possession, and his plan to leak the confidential documents. Confidential e-mails between the director and the man are shown, putting right in her shoes. After the reveal, Snowden discusses the severe ways it has affected his life. This essentially gives us a peak into the world’s most wanted man from his own perspective. We also get a peak at Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who broke the story, and how the events affected his life too. For future generations that will want to learn about the NSA controversy, who Snowdon was, what happened and the fallout of it, “Citizenfour” will be essential viewing. Fully expect to see it in classrooms in a few years time.

I’ll repeat: As a historical document, “Citizenfour” is invaluable. But I’m not sure it’s much of a movie. There’s nothing cinematic at all about the interviews with Snowden. They are merely long, long scenes of him talking into the camera. Sometimes, he’s not even framed correctly, like when he sits on a bed with his laptop. What he talks about will be well-known to anyone who read the news stories. Very little new information is revealed here. Despite his notorious status in the political spectrum, Snowden comes off as a really square, normal guy. Frequently, Poitras just cuts to news reports from CNN or other networks, taken directly from the channels. This is not especially compelling. The glimpses of Snowden trying to pass time in the hotel or of Greenwald seeing his boyfriend for the first time in a while are more human, more compelling. These moments are brief. “Citizenfour” feels less like cinema and more like a text book brought to life.

The interview footage comprises roughly the first hour of this nearly two hour long film. The second half resembles a more traditional documentary. This makes the second half a lot more watchable. The film cuts between the media’s response to Snowden, even including President Obama’s speech about it, with the affect the events had on Poitras and her cohorts. The speeches from various public speeches are not especially dramatic but at least they get at a point. Poitras opens the film by admitting she hoped to document the public’s reaction to the invasion of privacy. She could have done a better job of that. By focusing so heavily on the journalists, she completely eschews the man on the street’s reaction. She probably should have giving some screen time to those who condemned Snowden’s actions, just in the name of fairness.

Should “Citizenfour” win Best Documentary at the Oscars? Depends on how you define “best.” Should the best documentary be the one that’s most important, that captures history as it is happening? Or should the best documentary be a good film, that has an exciting narrative, thrilling editing, involving characters, or a strong emotional backbone? If it’s the latter, “Citizenfour” is definitely not the best documentary of any year. It’s a bore and about as flat as a movie can be. Don’t take this as a slam against Snowden, who I believe did the right thing. Take it as a slam against the unimaginative filmmakers. [5/10]

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