Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 10, 2014 4:21 am 
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Film about Edward Snowden NSA revelations provides intimate footage

For those who have been following the news over the past sixteen months, Laura Poitras' Citizenfour contains little that is new in the way of revelations about NSA and the seizure of data about citizens worldwide by the US government. But what it provides is a concise picture of how these revelations got into the world's media and what they mean. And more vividly and humanly, if you will, it provides a seamlessly edited close-up look, intimate and in sharp focus, at one of the most famous men of our time: Edward Snowden. Poitras's film shows Snowden up very close for the key days of his June 2013 revelations in the hotel room in Hong Kong, talking to Glenn Greenwald and sometimes Ewen MacAskill, a Scottish Guardian correspondent, being photographed by Poitras, who remains invisible. Snowden is as calm, cool, and collected all the time as he was in his famous interview with Greenwald revealing his identity and stating his business.

This is rare and intimate footage of huge news in the making. It also prompts a thought: when will John Le Carré write a book about this subject? The Hong Kong hotel scenes are definitely from the pages of an as yet unwritten Le Carré novel, about a brave new world where "freedom" and "liberty" have been replaced by the word "privacy," and for anyone with a cell phone, including Angela Merkel, "privacy" has ceased to exist.

Just a man sitting in a room. But with today's electronic media, that's all you need to make big news.

Snowden clearly had the stuff to put his life on the line as he did, giving up contact with his family and leaving his girlfriend behind in Hawaii with only a note to say he'd be away a while. He clearly understands why he was doing what he did. What brings one man to do this and not others is a mystery. He hopes his action will bring many more whistleblowers.

The story begins with a series of emails (with the "citizenfour" identification) to Poitras with hints of revelations to come and a lot about incription. (Perhaps he knew she had been working for several years on a documentary about surveillance in the post-9/11 era.) The film then shifts to Greenwald in his home in the woods outside Rio where he lives with his partner and a lot of big dogs, connected by wire with world news media. Greenwald was then a Guardian correspondent. He now is a cofounder of a new truth-to-power news outlet, The Intercept, funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, with a 12-person team including Poitras and Jeremy Scahill of the film and book Dirty Wars. Greenwald was to be the essential conduit of Snowden's revelations to the world's news media.

The footage providing context is important, but what matters most in Poitras' film are the dialogues in Snowden's hotel room. (Eventually he moves to her room in the hotel when he's been tracked down, to avoid calls.) As the dialogues go on, Greenwald's articles begin and major media coverage happens. And as it happens, we see Snowden watching CNN broadcasts about his revelations on his hotel room TV. (You could not make this up: the coverage is seamless and pefrectly paced, though telescoped in time.) Then the time to leave comes. Snowden packs up, apparently in a couple of plastic bags, spritzes his hair, shaves, and is whisked away. Hong Kong human rights lawyers consult with him at an unrevealed location. How he gets to Moscow is not revealed, though later we see him, joined by his girlfriend there, preparing food in a kitchen. After Snowden is away, in limbo, his communications with Poitras are shown, but they are guarded. The film ends with a scene in Russia between Snowden and Greenwald. Greenwald writes information about lines of communication going up to "POTUS" (President of the US) and Snowden says "You're fucking kidding!" With this cryptic final set of hints about a new whistleblower to come with even more explosive revelations, the film ends.

Citizenfour is produced by Stephen Soderbergh. It had its premiere as a late addition to the Main Slate of the 52nd New York Film Festival. It is a beautifully made film, filling in context and conveying a sense of place as it shifts from Brazil to Hong Kong to Berlin to Russia to US government and former CIA or NSA men who spoke up about the current collective electronic surveillance of everybody, everywhere before. To these men Snowden's revelations were not surprising. Only the extent and volume of the data collection was new to them. In fact information about these data collecting programs was already out there. But Snowden's willingness to come forward and risk his life to dramatize them has had great significance.

To the US government, Snowden is at least guilty of crimes, at most a traitor. To civil libertarians he is a hero. The latter will find this film inspiring. The former will find it repugnant.

Poitras considers Citizenfour to be the third and concluding film in a trilogy about the post-9/11 era. The first film, My Country, My Country, about the Iraq war, was nominated for an Academy Award, while 2010’s The Oath (ND/NF 2010), about Guantánamo, won the “excellence in cinematography award” at Sundance. Citizenfour isn't just a hot news story, though it is that, but also an elegant documentary.

For more details see the Indiewire review by Eric Kohn, "'CITIZENFOUR' is a Bracing Look at NSA Whistleblower's Impact." AV Club reviews this with Birdman as the NYFF finale.

Citizenfour, 114 mins., debuts at the 52nd New York Film Festival 10 October 2014, which has excelled in its documentary offerings. Watched for this review at a press and industry NYFF screening at Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas, W. 23rd St., 10 October. Laura Poitras will discuss the film in a free HBO Directors Dialogues at Lincoln Center on October 11. Venues: Walter Reade Theater, Alice Tully Hall. US theatrical release begins 24 October. [It subsequently received extremely high critical ratings -- Metacritic 88% and rottontomatoes 97%.]

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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