On this date in film, in 2013, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras begins a week of filming in a Hong Kong hotel room with Edward Snowden.
It was five months earlier that Poitras began receiving anonymous encrypted emails. The sender claimed to have evidence of the National Security Agency (NSA) running illegal covert surveillance operations, unchecked, and in collaboration with numerous other intelligence agencies around the world. Each message was signed “CITIZENFOUR”. Sniffing the seeds of a ground-shaking story, Poitras – accompanied by reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill – travels to Hong Kong to meet the whistle-blower who is hiding out in a hotel.
Citizenfour is compulsive, tense viewing. This despite a lack of what one would ordinarily call ‘action’. The film’s marketing and the stylistic flourishes Poitras allows herself (noirish lighting in a highway tunnel, data scrawls onscreen, throbbing atonal score) set the scene for an action thriller akin to Jason Bourne or a John Le Carré spy yarn – it’s aptly executive-produced by Steven Soderbergh. But Snowden isn’t your typical hero.
He is an unassuming man. Quiet, serious and, at least on the surface, oblivious to the controversy he is about to cause. And that’s just it. The dramatic core of Poitras’s documentary lies in the fact that her camera captures history as it is being made. Surely there are few other recent films that demonstrate the immediacy of the nonfiction form in such a powerful fashion.
There are moments of relief, such as seeing Snowden hunched over his laptop under a cloth to conceal his typing from any hidden cameras. And later, when the group are deep in conversation about the scope of the governmental spying, a hotel fire alarm sounds. They laugh, but when Snowden phones down to the front desk to confirm that it is just a drill they (and we, the audience) can’t help but think, ‘what if it isn’t?’