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Citizenfour Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread government spying come to life in ‘Citizenfour’

Everyone loves a story about a small group of outsiders challenging the power structure and successfully rattling the cage of the 600-pound gorilla. We love it all the more when the group’s size totals less than the fingers on one hand and the gorilla is the national security apparatus of the largest military power in the history of the human race. In real life, these stories rarely end well for the little guys.

“Citizenfour,” by Laura Poitras, is such a story — and the little guys continue the fight.

Her film tells the story of how National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden successfully released to the public irrefutable proof that the NSA was illegally spying on every American. It was collecting the records of every phone call, email message, or other electronic communication sent and received by US citizens. The NSA also conducted industrial espionage on behalf of corporate America. It tapped the electronic communications of foreign corporations such as Petrobras, the Brazilian national oil company.

“Citizenfour” is a spellbinder. Poitras does not simply describe what others did. She herself was a central player in getting Edward Snowden’s revelations before the world.

She begins her film in Hong Kong, where she and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill first meet a mysterious NSA insider, “Citizenfour,” who had sent them encrypted NSA documents which described the limitless NSA domestic spying program. They enter his hotel room to find Snowden, wearing a T-shirt, sitting on his bed, looking like a grad student studying for comprehensive exams. They conduct their first interviews.

Citizenfour Edward Snowden

Laura Poitras

As Snowden familiarizes the journalists with the content of the revelations, we learn how this low seniority technology officer was able to access such a vast trove of material. He began as a tech guru, first for the NSA and later for NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. He is the tech wiz kid. He had full access to all the NSA files, but no one thought he would understand or be bothered by the content. He was the person the NSA fears most. He entered the NSA as a loyal foot soldier in the war against terrorism. Once on the inside, and comprehending the content of the material he was administering, he learned the truth. His own organization was lying to the American people it was sworn to serve. The NSA was the ultimate “bad cop.”

As with her previous film, “My Country, My Country,” Poitras lets her camera tell the story. There is no voice narration. She simply shows the viewer exactly what happened. The footage speaks for itself.

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The first interview with Snowden happened on June 3, 2013. The name Edward Snowden meant nothing to the world. Greenwald’s first story ran on June 5. At Snowden’s request, he was not identified. He felt the media would make the story about him and not what he was disclosing: the world’s supreme superpower was spying into the most intimate details of the private lives of its citizens. Without his name, the media could not make it into a personality story.

During the next four days, Snowden appears in constant fear that his arrest is imminent. Poitras shows the tension in the room as an un-forecasted hotel fire alarm test goes off. Electrifying!

On the fifth day Snowden identifies himself to the world. He attempts to seek asylum. Hong Kong denies his request. With the help of the Wikileaks organization he attempts to travel to Ecuador but is trapped while in transit through Moscow due to his lack of a transit visa. The story is now about him. Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former intelligence agent himself, gives Snowden a temporary residency status.

Snowden was not the first NSA agent to complain about domestic spying. Poitrus shows NSA 30-year veteran William Binney after he left the agency in 2001 over the domestic spying program. He describes how he was ignored by the White House and Congress. The NSA made Binney into a nonperson. His concerns were ignored.

Citizenfour Edward Snowden

Poitras’ most impressive footage of the film ingeniously shows the congressional testimony of Generals Keith Alexander, director of the NSA, and James Clapper, director of National Intelligence. On screen each states without equivocation that the intelligence agencies are not spying on Americans. She shows this footage without editorial comment! It is left to the viewer to decide if the generals, by lying to Congress, trampled their flag, insulted their country and disgraced the military honor of the nation they were sworn to serve.

The film ends with a scene of Snowden, his significant other, Lindsey Mills, and Greenwald passing notes across the table at Snowden’s temporary residence in Moscow. They have new NSA information to tell the world. The cage continues to rattle.


This film is a must see. Stay tuned.

Robert Nelson

Republished with permission from Pasadena Weekly.