Monday, October 27, 2014

"Citizenfour", latest documentary by Laura Poitras, makes Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald into movie stars; how did she get this made?


Citizenfour” is a stunning “filmed as is” docudrama of the meetings between Edward Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras (the director) as well as later Ewen MacAskill, in June 2013 in a hotel in Hong Kong.
  
The film was produced by HBO, Praxis and Participant media, and distributed theatrically by Radius TWC.  The aspect ratio (1.66:1) is slightly less the usual, suggesting television-intended, and the sound doesn’t seem to have full Dolby, given the conditions under which the film was shot.
  
As the film opens, we see a long corridor or tunnel, with the pencil-point of light at the end.  Poitras narrates, and describes how she is on a government watch list herself with DHS (wiki ).  The tunnel comes to an end and opens up on Hong Kong.
   
We also have an early scene with Glenn Greenwald lounging at his Brazil home, preparing to go on a mystery mission before the encounter.  We glimpse his hairy body and the camera often dawdles on his dog, which dearly loves him.  His male partner, David Miranda, will appear at the end when he is detained because of Glenn’s reporting for the Guardian.

I don’t know how Poitras pulled all this off, but the camera goes all over the world, to Rio and Brasilia, to Russia (for Snowden’s “resting place” with his girl friend), and to Berlin, where Poitras lives, and also to Brussels, where the EU challenges the US NSA, as well as to NSA facilities in Utah and in Britain.

But Edward  Snowden is the charismatic star of the film. About half of the 114 minute length is taken showing Snowden’s articulate explanations of how NSA snooping works (illegally), as her lounges around in the Hong Kong hotel in informal garb.  The camera lingers on his soft face, that has some minor skin irritation, and sometimes on his smooth, almost hairless arms and upper chest.  The intimacy of this movie is plainly shocking.  When Greenwald and Poitras first meet him, they don't know who he is or who he works for.  He was a kid born in North Carolina.  

A lot of time is taken, also, in showing computer chat between Snowden and Poitras after he leaves Hong Kong (and winds up in Russia).  Julian Assange appears, helping arrange his asylum from his own perch in the Ecuadoran embassy in London.  It’s ironic that Putin has helped Snowden, who  is motivated by liberty interests of all people, when Putin has behaved like a dictator since, with respect to the anti-gay propaganda law (indeed ironic given Greenwald’s participation) and obviously with his “invasion” of Ukraine and duplicitous behavior on the Malaysian plane crash,
  
The film explains, toward the end, that the “illegality” of the government’s actions is not an affirmative defense in a trail for espionage.  It also goes into how we have co-mingled liberty with a notion of privacy that no longer exists anyway, given social media and the Internet. 

Snowden explains how "metadata gathering" works pretty clearly.  At on point he left me wondering of the NSA could snoop on cloud backups -- of computer files never sent or published anywhere.  Just yesterday, Carbonite on one of my computers suddenly got itself uninstalled.  It sent me a chilling thought half way through the movie.

There is a lot of embedded CNN coverage. 
  

The official site is here (TWC).  The title of the film is usually spelled as one word and is most correctly written in capitals ("CITIZENFOUR").   Some sources may spell it as two words ("Citizen Four").  
   
I saw the film on a Monday afternoon (delayed in getting to it by a busy weekend in New York) at Landmark’s E Street Cinema in Washington, and the weekday audience almost half-filled the large Auditorium 1.

I don't usually give star-count ratings, but this one deserves five stars if any film does.  

Wikipedia attribution link for Hong Kong NASA photo.

Update: Nov. 23, 2014

I've reviewed Glenn Greenwald's book "No Place to Hide" on my Book Reviews blog Nov. 22, 2014. There's a lot of material on "what journalism is" as well as a detailed account of the 10-day meeting with Edward Snowden in the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong. 

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