Given all that's been going on recently, especially with what the FBI is calling a cyberattack by North Korea on Sony Pictures, it's easy to forget the other big cyber news of the past couple of years: Edward Snowden and the documents he shared regarding the National Security Agency. If you need a reminder, you might check out “Citizenfour,” the documentary playing at the Magic Lantern Theater.
Following is a transcription of the review of “Citizenfour” that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
In the first film classes I ever took, Manny Farber used to fill the air with pithy pronouncements. His point, I think, was to provoke us, to shake us out of our comfortable lives and to make us think about things in a new way.
I remember once he was talking about that nature of political acts. And in the middle of his diatribe, a student started to sneak out of the lecture hall. “See? See?” Farber said, pointing to the student. “THAT is a political act!” The student, chagrined, stood up straight and said, “I’m just going to meet up with my girlfriend.” In response, Farber smacked the lectern. “EVERYthing,” he bellowed, “is a political act!”
I thought of that incident while watching Laura Poitras’ intriguing, and in many ways frightening, documentary, “Citizenfour.” I thought of the demonstrations in Hong Kong, the riots in Ferguson, Mo., people wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts. I thought of terrorist attacks, of police-force militarization, of reports that pretty much everything we say over the phone or write online is being surveyed by some algorithm gauging the threat level of our comments.
And then I thought of most of us, sitting comfortably in our homes, surfing the web, posting on some social media site or waging a war of words either with friends or – more likely – complete strangers over some random issue, blithely unaware that the very words we use – Al Qaeda, say, 9/11 or government surveillance – is likely attracting attention.
That’s the kind of mindset that “Citizenfour” rouses. Poitras’ documentary, which unfolds like an Alan Furst espionage thriller, is more than a mere documentary. As Chicago Reader film reviewer J.R. Jones wrote, “This is history.” It was in January 2013 that Poitras – already known for her work on the documentary television series “P.O.V.,” started receiving emails from a mystery source self-named Citizen Four. The source claimed to have documents that showed how the federal government, through the National Security Agency, was conducting a vast system of surveillance on U.S. citizens.
Before long, we find ourselves in a Hong Kong hotel room. And there, not yet a symbol of – depending on how you define patriotism, treasonous treachery or whistle-blowing heroism – is Edward Snowden. Mind you, this is before the, at this point, former NSA contract worker had released any of the top-secret documents he possessed.
We watch as Snowden – a guy who comes across as calm and unassuming, nervous but serious about his commitment to the ideals of a transparent society – is interviewed by the men who would ultimately shepherd the documents into public hands: investigative reporters Glen Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill.
And we continue to watch as, when those documents hit the pages of the New York Times, Washington Post and London’s The Guardian – and as, subsequently, his face fills TV screens – Snowden begins to realize just how completely the life he once lived is now over.
At that point, Snowden resembles the guy trying to sneak out of Manny Farber’s class. Meanwhile, the rest of us sit by – watching.