Edward Snowden, who risked his life by spilling the secret information that nothing is a secret, is perhaps over-revered by a certain type of person: white, male, national-security obsessed, libertarian-leaning, privileged. These are the folks who weren’t ever dissidents, immigrants, people of color or “othered,” people who were genuinely shocked and not exhausted by Snowden’s snuck-out news that the government is listening in (at least via metadata) to our every little click and convo.
But does this cultural position mean he’s not a hero? Watching Laura Poitras’ stunning new documentary about Snowden, Citizenfour (opening tomorrow), I kept thinking about all the dystopian narratives that are in vogue. In The Hunger Games, Divergent, and their ilk, the lens usually focuses on a young person or a band of people who are stand-ins for us at our most courageous: warm-blooded, temperamental, relatable, fiercely loyal, protecting family from an evil, overreaching government.
Life can be more complex than fiction. Just as Citizenfour’s most riveting scenes are completely sterile, so are its protagonists. These key scenes — bookended by lots of documentary-style background on the NSA and Poitras’ initial contact with Snowden — unfold in an anonymous Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden, previously known only as “Citizenfour,” has rendezvoused with Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and the Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill to pass over international government secrets. Drones, spying on Americans, on international citizenry, on international politicians, much of it under the banner of security but really for the sake of expanding our capitalist hand. All our worst fears are confirmed as the film makes us voyeurs into these clandestine exchanges. As the group peruses the documents, they act not as international rogues but in a way that’s tense, clean-cut, clipped, methodical — not inhuman but deeply focused on the task at hand. They check in on each other, but they have a job to do.
And Snowden is the most clear-eyed of all. Here’s Snowden on leaving home forever (according to notes made by me in a darkened theater): “I don’t think I’ll be able to keep my family ties.” Here he is on why he has risked this momentous sacrifice: “I feel good in my human experience to know that I can contribute to the good of others.”
OK, then. Katniss Everdeen he is not. Of course not. In real life, the heroes, the people risking their safety to defy the authorities, aren’t necessarily charismatic in a traditionally cinematic way. Instead, the authorities are charismatic, and we often sympathize with them. Meanwhile the rebels appear almost rigid and terrifying in their assured self-righteousness. Watching him act, I felt like Snowden’s brain was ahead of his heart, which makes perfect sense: our hearts, our attachments, our human frailties, are what keep us from being as defiant and courageous as he has been.
Yet that doesn’t mean he has no heart, or ours don’t break a little for him throughout this film. Snowden’s face barely changes as he goes through the process of letting go of his past life, his girlfriend (she has since joined him abroad). At one point he realizes that she realizes that he’s gone, and he learns that she’s seeing “construction” vehicles cram their street at home, while his rent checks are bouncing. He is calm, but he reacts. His head in his hands, his reddened face, are subtle yet they show us fear, anger and sadness.
This wins us over to his side, only to be terrified by his utter lack of surprise, at anything that could happen to him. He has seen what our government is capable of, and his knowledge makes him suspect the worst, ever single time. Poitras’ most tense passages occur when the fire alarm goes off repeatedly in the hotel, just after Snowden explains exactly how their phone, their communications of all kinds, could be intercepted. Everyone freezes. Later, as the now-outed whistleblower tries to escape with the help of human rights lawyers, our breath shortens again. It reads like that moment in 1984 when you finally get that Big Brother’s minions have had a handle on the protagonist the entire time
Ultimately Citizenfour sort of presents its subject an uber-citizen, obsessed with his duty, upending his life and ours because he believes so much that “the balance of power between the citizens and government is becoming the ruling vs. the ruled rather than the elected vs. the electorate.” He yearns for the early days of the Internet, and feels that government interference in communication “limits the boundaries of intellectual exploration.”
Nowhere is he demanding that we all stand up for the youth, the children, our families. He stands for principles, purely. Yet the truth is on his side. If you, like me, were only vaguely focused on the Snowden sturm und drang when it went down, you need to see this film. Just because Snowden and Greenwald’s fanboys are paranoid doesn’t mean the government is not after us. By showing us just how much it takes to stand up to the powers that be, Citizenfour shows us the extent of those powers. Poitras’ lingering shots of data collection centers in the Utah desert or a remote British cliff may recall James Bond or District 13, but to simply compare them to fiction diminishes the terrifying truth.