I truly believe that meaningful personal liberty is impossible without guaranteed personal privacy. Which is why Citizenfour — Laura Poitras' new documentary about Edward Snowden's decision to expose the United States government's massive, secret, and mostly illegal foreign and domestic surveillance programs — is the most frightening movie I've seen in years. Watching Citizenfour is like slowly ingesting a long draught of liquid hopelessness; the enormity of the dull, aching fear it produces is akin to being reminded repeatedly about both your political impotence and your cosmic insignificance.
Interestingly, Snowden — whose long interview in a Hong Kong hotel room with Poitras and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill makes up nearly half the film — reached out to the filmmaker via email while she was living in Berlin and working on a documentary about the contemporary surveillance state. Snowden's earliest correspondence appears onscreen as a nonsensical jumble of letters and numbers that suggest the Zodiac killer's initial letters to the Bay Area press. But we quickly realize that these are copies of the heavily encrypted messages Snowden originally sent.
Poitras reads excerpts from these emails throughout the film, and at first they sound like dispatches from the outer provinces of a conspiracy-mad no-man's-land. For example, when it comes to password protection, Poitras is told to "assume your adversary is capable of 1 trillion guesses per second." As the film goes on, and as the government's capacity and willingness to spy on its own citizens grows clearer, they start to sound like the grim facts of online life.
Poitras and her collaborators make the mountains of information Snowden presents to them fairly easy to see and understand. She doesn't deal explicitly with many of the documents Snowden leaked, but over time the sinister implications of buzzwords like "meta-data" and "linkability" become apparent. It is sobering to know that, if you have a debit card and a phone, the government can essentially track your whereabouts at all times. (It's also sobering to know that someone somewhere has recorded every instance where I searched for more information about "GCHQ" or "Wikileaks" or "Jacob Appelbaum" while writing this review.)
Snowden himself is capable of a grim sense of humor about his endeavors, but mostly he exudes the divine gravity of a tech-savvy monk who's doused himself in gasoline and is about to light a match. He keeps his identity secret for as long as he can, but when he speaks, his words feel aimed at future generations. He's onscreen a lot in this movie, and one of the film's biggest shocks is that this harmless-looking dweeb, with his patchy facial hair and strong prescription lenses is the one who spoke out.
The end of the film, which features Snowden and Greenwald in matching blue shirts exchanging slips of paper and knowing glances like a pair of overgrown private-school kids, is silent about next steps. But what is to be done? And if not now, when?