By Bill Stamets/For Sun-Times Media
“Citizenfour” is how Edward Snowden signed his initial emails to non-fiction filmmaker Laura Poitras. She titles her uncommonly nuanced documentary on this infamous National Security Administration whistleblower after his code name.
Most of “Citizenfour” unfolds in a Hong Kong hotel room where a studiously off-camera Poitras records the 29-year-old computer intelligence contractor and consultant planning his historic leak to journalist Glenn Greenwald in June 2013. His subsequent book “No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State” lauds “Snowden’s fearlessness and unbreakable tranquility” in exposing “the ubiquitous, secretive system of suspicionless surveillance” of the U.S. government.
In a film about post-9/11 technology capable of “one trillion inquiries per second,” Poitras wisely omits minor details: why Snowden identified himself as “citizenfour” and who paid his 10-day hotel bill. More to the point are the names and underwriters of massive intelligence-gathering programs called PRISM, Tempora, XKeyscore, Sentry Eagle and Stellar Wind.
“We are building the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind,” states Snowden, after working four years on NSA and CIA assignments with a security clearance. “It’s not science fiction, it’s happening right now.”
“Citizenfour” forsakes the investigative suspense and personal story lines of two recent documentaries about data in the war on terror: Alex Gibney’s “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” (2013) and Errol Morris’ “Standard Operating Procedure” (2008). Two earlier films in Poitras’ trilogy — completed with “Citizenfour” — showed far more of the lives of her subjects: an Iraqi Islamic Party candidate in “My Country, My Country” (2006), and in “The Oath” (2010), a taxi driver in Yemen who once served as a bodyguard to Osama bin Laden.
Poitras fills her screen with an encrypted email or two but typically employs a discreet small font for white titles on a black screen. Subtly expressive moments include Snowden sitting on his white bed and placing a red cloth over his head to cover his laptop as he types in secrecy. To thwart unseen listeners, he passes along handwritten notes for sensitive phrases during an interview. Close-ups then show their shredding by hand.
This thoughtful film is designed with taste. Music is minimal. Cuing a little Nine Inch Nails at the end, Poitras enables “citizenfour” to commit an act of reverse surveillance on the NSA.
Radius-TWC presents a film documentary directed by Laura Poitra. Running time: 114 minutes. Rated R (for language). Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre.