CitizenFour review: it’s not paranoia when there’s proof you’re being watched

    
Director: Laura Poitras
Cert: Club
Genre: Documentary
Starring: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Jacob Appelbaum
Running Time: 1 hr 54 mins

Edward Snowden worked deep inside America’s Dark State as a contract systems administrator for the NSA. His position allowed him to access millions of documents to demonstrate that the US is using internet providers and tech behemoths – Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter – to spy on its citizens.

This, he says, is a privilege compared to how the NSA and the Five Eyes (Australia, Canada, UK, US, NZ) treat the rest of the world. A map illustrating activity levels flashes on screen during Laura Poitras’ thrilling documentary, a map that obscures Ireland and the UK by black, eyeballing pathways.

For most of CitizenFour's duration, we're trapped with whistleblower Edward Snowden and film-maker Laura Poitras in a Hong Kong hotel room telling a story that started to break in June 2013. It is a tribute to Poitras' skills that CitizenFour grips our attention until an appropriately creepy electrified fuzz, lifted from NIN's Ghosts, plays over the final credits. Breaking TV news and various asides counterpoint Snowden's metadata with reminders of Barack Obama's forgotten promises to respect human and constitutional rights.

In an era defined by leaked documents and cynicism, it would be easy to lose sight of the significance of Snowden's revelations. CitizenFour, named after Snowden's one-time pseudonym, doesn't allow for such complacency. It is impossible not to feel paranoid as Snowden reveals the extent of his former employer's surveillance activities. It is equally impossible not to recall Thomas Pynchon's theory that anti-paranoia is a far worse state of mind.


Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, both journalists with the Guardian, ask questions and look increasingly horrified at the answers. Laura Poitras generally remains in the background.

Snowden, a thoughtful, bespectacled hipster-nerd is certain that he is doing the right thing. Greenwald characterises his actions as "the fearlessness and the fuck-you", but Snowden is never loud or showy. No tables were banged during the making of this film, which shares more DNA with such 1970s classics as The Parallax View, The Conversation or All the President's Men, than it does with most documentaries.

Intriguingly, the role of Julian Assange and Wikileaks is played down. More intriguingly, several minutes appear to have been excised from the version screened for US critics. Consult the internet to see which bits – using Tor and Tails, of course.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic