Monday, November 3, 2014

New movie review: Citizenfour

Edward Snowden (left) speaks with journalist Glenn Greenwald in Citizenfour.

Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I’ll be watching you
– “Every Breath You Take,” by The Police

Every time you write. Every message you type. Every post you like. Everything you write. They are watching you. An accurate message, fittingly originated by The Police, translated to 2014, when it is no longer just a vaguely creepy wedding song but a disturbing reality of life in the digital age. The whole world is online, and whoever you are on the Internet, for all intents and purposes, is who you are.

When you click on a link or visit a site, you are logging information about who you are, who you will be, and who you wish you were. To have access to that information would be to have power – the ability to control all the versions of you that exist. We already know this on some intuitive level, and it is the tradeoff we make to enjoy the convenience of the online world.

Of course Google knows everything for which we have ever searched. Of course dating websites know intimate details about the ways we love. Of course Facebook is an experiment in culture on a scale the likes of which social scientists could never have dreamed. These are acceptable risks. We bury them and move on. But, where is the line?

We now know that the U.S. government and the National Security Agency in particular have had access to all of it – our phones, our computers, our lives – since at least Sept. 11, 2001. Out of fear, we agreed to allow those who protect us nearly unlimited power to find the monsters, but instead of checking for bogeymen under the bed, they were lifting our covers to see if we were the threat. If we cannot draw a line there, then maybe we do not believe in lines.

The new documentary from Laura Poitras, Citizenfour, explores the extent of the government’s spy programs through the eyes of the man who brought it all to light – Edward Snowden. He is infamous now. Snowden is a traitor, a hero, a pariah, a patriot. He is the man we saw dissected on the news while the real story passed by us. He is the beating heart at the center of Poitras’ dense political thriller, which tells a story that would be implausible if we did not already know that it is true.

Poitras is the director behind two great Iraq War documentaries, the Oscar-nominated My Country, My Country and The Oath, which landed her on the government’s watchlist. She moved to Berlin and began work on a film about American surveillance programs. Then, she began receiving the emails. Cryptic, mostly coded messages with the promise of blowing the lid off U.S. post-9/11 spying, they were signed “Citizenfour.” Snowden was contacting her.

Working through the paranoia and around the surveillance under which they would both live, Poitras and Snowden met in Hong Kong. For more than a week, they sat in a hotel room, and she filmed Snowden covering everything from his past and his hopes for the future to the staggering scope of the U.S. government’s intrusion into citizens’ lives.

These interviews make up the bulk of the film’s runtime, but rather than bogging down the proceedings as talking-head sequences so often do, they play as the riveting confessionals of an unknown man who knows he is about to become public enemy No. 1. Sitting in with Poitras are the journalists who would get credit for breaking one of the biggest stories of our time. They are Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill.

Snowden is clearly putting himself and his family at tremendous risk by releasing his privileged information, but so are those documenting his journey and telling his story. As a journalist, it is hard not to sit in awe of the murderer’s row of investigative reporters assembled for this movie. For me, this is what the best reporting is about: digging deeper than anyone has cared to look and uncovering the things no one wanted to see.

Greenwald is a particularly impressive man, whom Snowden recommended Poitras bring on board. Dedicated to comprehending the full weight of what Snowden is revealing, Greenwald becomes a stand-in for the audience – as any good journalist should. Snowden has lived with these facts of life for a long time, but these revelations are mostly new to Greenwald and to us. His shock is our shock.

Your viewing of this film and your ultimate feelings toward it will probably depend on what you think of Snowden and his actions. Poitras knows this, and despite her subject’s protestations that he is not the story, she goes to great lengths to put Snowden’s whistleblowing in the context of his own life and struggles as much as the world at large.

Indeed, some of the film’s most powerful images are of Snowden sitting in his hotel room and watching the fallout of what we now call the “NSA leak.” More powerful still are the silent moments of Snowden staring out the window of his room. Here is a man who has brought the whole world down on himself. When he stares at an adjacent building, every window on every floor poses a threat, as do each passing car and every unknown face. Paranoia is a life sentence.

At the end of the day, though, this film is not about Snowden or Greenwald or Poitras. It is about all of us. The end of privacy is the end of liberty. Consider the Arab Spring of a few years back. Using the social media tools at their disposal to organize, they gathered in the streets and gave a voice to an opposition movement so long forced underground and into silence. The world watched. The government’s response was to shut down the Internet to try to prevent future demonstrations.

It would be hard to invent two more diametrically opposed ideologies: the people freely exchanging ideas and exercising their right to gather and a brutal, dictatorial regime trying to deny the rights of those people. Some have suggested such things could never happen here, and to an extent, they are right. But, the final question of Citizenfour is: If the U.S. government knows where you gather, who was with you, and what you said, is it any better?

The first one through the wall always gets bloody, but Snowden did what he did because this is not the America he signed up to protect. His hope is that others will follow him through the wall. Liberal, conservative, or independent, when the elected no longer bow to the will of the voters, that is a government that has outlived its usefulness. Maybe, despite this, you still think the U.S. is the greatest country in the world, or perhaps you think American exceptionalism is a crumbling myth. Either way, we should all be better than this.

See it? Yes.

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