Friday, October 24, 2014

Citizenfour: Softballs for Snowden

Ironically, the outrage generated by Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations comes at a time when many people are increasingly relinquishing their privacy. Of course, voluntarily “sharing” is quite a different matter than finding the government has secretly rummaged through your email and social networks. Advocacy filmmaker Laura Poitras does not have time for such cultural observations. Unfortunately, she is not inclined to ask her subject any challenging questions either. As a result, she does Edward Snowden and her audience a disservice in Citizenfour, which opens today in New York.

Using the alias Citizenfour, Edward Snowden reached out to Poitras through a series of encrypted emails before he ever went public. She was in Snowden’s fateful Hong Kong hotel room with The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill from day one, documenting each bombshell revelation, practically in real time—except not really. William Binney, whom Citizenfour also celebrates as a whistle-blowing hero, once flat-out suggested (and subsequently walked back) Snowden “is transitioning from whistle-blower to a traitor” by leaking detailed information regarding American cyber espionage in China to the South China Morning Post. Obviously, that is an inconvenient episode for Poitras’s narrative, so she makes it un-happen.

Frankly, that is exactly the sort of thing she should have called out Snowden on. Many Americans have conflicted feelings on Snowden. They are concerned about the scope and pervasiveness of NSA snooping, but are also alarmed by Snowden’s document dumps, such as the SCMP affair. It would help his personal standing and engender confidence in his and Poitras’s cause if he would address such concerns head on and perhaps admit some mistakes were made.

The missing episode further underscores a fundamental disconnect from reality in Citizenfour, given how much of it is set within that HK hotel room. Granted, in 2013, one could maybe get away with assuming Hong Kong’s capitalists really did not care if their democracy was a sham orchestrated by the Mainland government, but the subsequent demonstrations and violent crackdowns make Snowden’s short residency look somewhat problematic for a self-appointed champion of civil liberties. However, the charge of hypocrisy becomes blazing obvious when Snowden accepts asylum in Russia, a state that assassinated investigative journalists like Anna Politkovskaya and imprisoned critics of the Putin regime, including Pussy Riot and Mikhail Khordorkovsky, on dubious charges.

[Subsequent edit: From outside sources, it is now understood Snowden never intended to settle in Russia. He happened to land there (literally) due to events beyond his control, so it weird Poitras glossed over that context.] Again, this is an elephant in the room that Poitras willfully ignores. It is a real shame, because Snowden’s earnestness is compelling and convincing. Just listening to him explain the operational structure of the NSA is bizarrely fascinating. Had she pushed him to admit his own discomfort with his new hosts and challenged some of his assumptions, viewers could judge how well withstood some tough questioning and his overall credibility by extension.

Clearly, there is no ideological or journalistic daylight between Poitras, Greenwald, and Snowden. From day one, they present a united front. Yet, that does not serve the audience’s interest and it might not be in Poitras’s best interests either, considering recent court decisions have not recognized the confidentiality of sources for filmmakers judged to be operating in an advocacy capacity rather than as independent journalists.

Yes, we should be concerned about what our government is up to, but we should also be skeptical of Citizenfour. The big finale wherein Poitras and Greenwald tease further revelations from an even bigger source demonstrates why. Greenwald scribbles a series of bombshells on notepaper for an increasingly amazed Snowden to behold. Some he also shows to the camera, but some he does not. Poitras always knows when to zoom in and when to back off, clearly indicating they have choreographed this scene to some extent beforehand. It makes you wonder how much else they have stage-managed for the audience’s presumed benefit.

Probably nobody with a camera will ever have the same level of intimate access to Snowden that Poitras had in Hong Kong. Yet, she never has him look into the lens and give a straight-up defense of his actions and motivations to the American people. That was a missed opportunity that might come to haunt Poitras in the days to come. Instead, Citizenfour becomes almost fannish, just assuming that everyone is following along in lockstep with Snowden, Greenwald, and company. What isn’t there in Citizenfour is definitely missed. In fact, it makes it impossible to recommend when it opens today (10/24) in New York at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.