Hard News by Russell Brown


Review: Citizenfour

Citizenfour, the Edward Snowden movie, is an unusual film. It tells a story that spans the globe and has a fair claim on being the story of our times, but its heart – and more than half its running time – is in the Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden, the NSA whistleblower, spent eight days in 2013 sharing the secrets he had gathered.

It's an amazingly intimate depiction of a historical encounter. We habitually imagine what it might have been like to be "in the room" for great moments, knowing that the moment has passed and we never will be. And yet here we are, in the room.

The meeting in the hotel room is the culmination of the long process of the gaining of trust that began when Snowden, who first identified himself as "Citizenfour", contacted the film's director Laura Poitras to talk about the intolerable mass surveillance of which he had been a part at the US National Security Agency, and to raise the alarm. Their encrypted conversations, before Hong Kong and after, are the film's narrative thread.

The eight days begin with Snowden calm, confident – he has planned this – and perhaps a little giddy that the plan is coming together. By the end, events have broken loose out in the world and Snowden, still with his oddly formal charisma, looks drained and anxious. They don't know where this goes next. In the one sequence where he seems genuinely rattled, he worries what he has done to Lindsay Mills, the girlfriend he was obliged to leave behind in Hawaii.

Any journalist who has taken an interest in this story will be intrigued by the other two people on camera. Glenn Greenwald, then a stroppy Guardian columnist, is wired, keen to go. Ewan MacAskill, the hugely experienced intelligence corespondent The Guardian has sent to Hong Kong to assess the situation, is reserved, phlegmatic, cautious. At one point he observes to Snowden that he doesn't know anything about him. Snowden, slightly taken aback, asks if the reporter wants his professional background, personal story or what. "No," says MacAskill, "I don't even know your name."

And yet at that point, The Guardian is poised to run Greenwald's first two Snowden stories – even though it's clear that, as they gaze at a graphic on Snowden's laptop, they're not even really sure what they're looking at. I asked Greenwald about this when I interviewed him last year and he said that one of those stories, about the NSA's mass collection of call records from the telco Verizon, was "a relatively easy story to report" because the secret court order compelling Verizon to turn over the records was so clear.

But is that a reason to go to press two days after you've met your source? (Ironically, the Verizon story was, of all the leads in Snowden's trove, one that wasn't entirely news. The ACLU had been immersed in a Freedom of Information Act battle over the phone records programme for two years.) The second story, the revelation of the Prism programme, suffered from a lack of clarity over what Prism actually was, and the means and relationships through which giant companies like Yahoo and Apple were required to provide access to their customers' information. The Guardian wound up a day later trying to tally various other claims with what it thought it had gleaned from Snowden's Powerpoint slides. I do think this hurt their later, much more substantial, reporting.

In this light it's hard not to feel that instead of rushing to place Snowden at the centre of the story (somewhat against his own judgement, it seems), Greenwald should have been quizzing him for more detail. What exactly is Prism? Can you characterise it for us, and explain its machinery? How do you know this?

There's also no hint in the film of the pressure Greenwald placed on The Guardian to go quickly, or of his unseemly spat with another journalist Snowden had contacted, the Washington Post's Barton Gellman. And although the British government's extraordinary order to The Guardian to destroy the hard drives on which its Snowden data had been stored is covered, it's somewhat out of context and probably puzzling to someone who doesn't already know the story. Where, I found myself wondering, is Alan Rusbridger in all this?

As George Packer's excellent New Yorker profile of Poitras as she was finishing the film last year notes, her inevitable falling-out with Wikileaks is missing from the story too. The phase in which Wikileaks entered the story, looking to spirit Snowden to Ecaudor via Moscow and making it only as far as Moscow airport, also seems to lack detail.

But let's not quibble too much. Poitras and Greenwald both sacrificed a good deal of what peace they had left in their private lives in taking on this staggeringly important story. They have not paid as much of a personal cost as Snowden himself, but they have paid.

Towards the end of the film, there is a resolution of a sort: Mills, now reunited with Snowden in Russia, is shown making dinner with him, in a shot through the window of the dacha where they will live for the foreseeable future. It's an equilibrium, but not an end. The end of this story seems a long, long way off yet.


Advance screenings of Citizenfour begin at Auckland's Academy Cinema on Sunday. Details here.

The film opens on February 12 at the Rialto Newmarket and the Lighthouse Cinema, Cuba Street, Wellington. Screenings begin on February 19 at Alice Cinemateque in Christchurch and there will be "select screenings" at the Rialto in Dunedin.

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