Laura Poitras‘s Citizenfour (Radius/TWC, 10.24), the step-by-step story of how Poitras and hotshot journalist Glenn Greenwald broke the story of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, is a gripping, dead brilliant cyber-thriller. It’s a documentary, of course, but I’ve never seen a doc that feels less like one. This is realtime drama, suspenseful as a motherfucker, and with the tonal vibe of a low-key espionage thriller. In short it’s great cinema — riveting, moody, disturbing. And cut and paced like…what, a 21st Century Ipcress File? Something like that.
The surprise is that it’s emotionally engaging. That’s because the affable, quite eloquent Snowden comes across as a good guy with fears and regular-guy emotions and a pair of steel balls — a personable, highly intelligent fellow in a tough spot but with firm convictions and no regrets whatsoever (or none to speak of). He’s not in a serene situation but he’s clearly at peace with himself, and undeterred.
I was so taken by Citizenfour, which I saw last night at the Aidikoff screening room in Beverly Hills (two or three hours after it played at the New York Film Festival), that I’m seeing it again on Monday. I’ve seen certain docs more than once, but I’ve never decided to re-experience a documentary within a week of an initial viewing in my entire life.
My condolences to Life Itself, The Battered Bastards of Baseball, Red Army, Code Black, Last Days in Vietnam, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, Jodorowsky’s Dune, My Life Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn and 20,000 Days On Earth but Citizenfour is almost certainly going to take the Best Feature Documentary Oscar — hands down, game over, forget about it.
Okay, I suppose it’s possible that conservative, slow-on-the-pickup types on the Academy’s documentary committee could rebel against the coming consensus (trust me) and say “oh, yeah? Well, nobody’s pushing us around…we’re giving the Oscar to a doc that we find more emotionally affecting!” Nobody ever went broke by under-estimating the intelligence and perceptions of Academy members.
Citizenfour offers a bracing assessment of the former National Security Agency contractor, whose disclosures about government surveillance of virtually everyone’s lives and the total decimation of any concept of privacy, provides a combination of background plus lead-up plus fascinating footage.
If you know the Snowden story it’s basically an intimate, you-are-there recap but in the form of a tightly-written, quietly gripping “drama”. On top of which it hints at the very end that a new, highly placed NSA whistleblower has picked up the torch and will divulge even more in due time.
The NSA’s reason for snagging access to everyone’s personal information (email, phone calls, bank payments, whereabouts) is, of course, because they want to catch potential terrorists before they strike. And that is why most of us who are uncomfortable if not outraged by the agency’s privacy invasions have grudgingly accepted the situation. We don’t want the good guys missing out on the next terrorist attack because they were hamstrung by lefties who suspect them of darker motives.
Consider these excerpts from a 6.18.13 story by CNN’s Peter Bergen and David Sterman:
In June 2013 General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, claimed that his agency’s massive acquisition of U.S. phone data and the contents of overseas internet traffic that is provided by American tech companies has helped prevent “dozens of terrorist events.”
But soon after Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, Democrats who serve on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “released a statement contradicting this assertion. ‘Gen. Alexander’s testimony yesterday suggested that the NSA’s bulk phone records collection program helped thwart dozens of terrorist attacks, but all of the plots that he mentioned appear to have been identified using other collection methods,” the two senators said.
“Indeed, a survey of court documents and media accounts of all the jihadist terrorist plots in the United States since 9/11 by the New America Foundation shows that traditional law enforcement methods have overwhelmingly played the most significant role in foiling terrorists.
“This suggests that the NSA surveillance programs are wide-ranging fishing expeditions with little to show for them.”