It’s rather remarkable that Citizenfour quickly develops into one of the most suspenseful films of the year, and not just because it’s a documentary chronicles one of the biggest global new stories of 2013 and takes mostly entirely in a hotel room.
More so because of the staggering revelations involved. Documentarian Laura Poitras is contacted through clandestine means to meet with a whistleblower in Hong Kong. She brings along journalist Glenn Greenwald, and together they meet Edward Snowden, 29-year-old former National Security Agency employee who would leak to them a barrage of classified documents detailing mass surveillance and government secrecy.
Citizenfour, the moniker by which Snowden first contacted Poitras, captures the tick tock of the leaks from a hotel room in Hong Kong, where the two journalists (later joined by reporter Ewen MacAskill) listen to Snowden’s story and prepare to report.
The initial correspondences are chilling, while the later conversations are undeniably gripping. Whatever personal initial thoughts one has on the events of last year are likely to be shaped and altered if not completely reworked. Snowden is given a chance to speak and explain himself, and it’s hard not see the virtue and earnestness with which he is making life-changing decisions. He is realistic yet hopeful, sacrificing indefinitely a relationship back home as well as family ties.
It is objective as it can be considering Snowden contacted Poitras directly. Even so, as journalists, she and Greenwald decided how to proceed. What’s startling too is a moment when MacAskill first starts interviewing Snowden and interrupts him saying, ‘I don’t even know your name.’
Fear certainly creeps in as well. When the first stories break, we watch as news media react, and Snowden himself reacts to the telecasts. When the phone rings, when the hotel alarm goes off, it’s jarring, making Citizen Four this incomparable real-life espionage thriller. Both Poitras and Greenwald are subsequently targeted, the subjects of tails and searches.
Nonetheless, Poitras has an extraordinary ability to make the static come alive, to make an isolated location and a series of emails and text messages far more arresting. It’s a necessary compendium to understand and appreciate this momentous from 2013. Citizenfour is uncannily both a powerful film and an important story, given the perfect treatment to a continuing, complex saga.