Edward Snowden     Glenn Greenwald     Laura Poitras


 Citizenfour is the code name for Edward Snowden, who leaked U.S. classified documents to the press showing how much the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) was monitoring the electronic information of billions of people including some U.S. citizens who are not under suspicion for terror or treason.  Two people Snowden reached out to initially were Glenn Greenwald (at the time, reporter for the Guardian of London) and Laura Poitras (documentary filmmaker).  He chose them partly because he wanted them to make objective decisions about which papers to release and report on.

 He arranged to meet them in Hong Kong last year, to plan together how and when he would be identified and to discuss the documents he possessed, and much of these meetings were filmed by Poitras for this documentary.  After the stories were published in the Guardian of London and the Washington Post, warrants were issued for Snowden’s arrest, his passport was revoked, and Hong Kong was asked to extradite him to the U.S.  However, Snowden, with the help of Julian Assange of Wikileaks, managed to get to Russia.  He had planned to move on from there, but ended up requesting asylum, which was granted for one year.

 Snowden is firm about why he leaked information; he thinks the public should be made aware of our government’s wide surveillance, which he regards as unconstitutional.  He was well aware beforehand of the risks he was taking, but his mission was more important.  In his opinion, the right of free speech is predicated on the right to privacy.

 This is the third documentary by Poitras about the U.S. government (previous two:  My Country, My Country and The Oath).  When she realized that she had been put on the U.S. watch list, she moved to Berlin to avoid having to give up her materials when she was searched at airports.  This documentary is about Snowden’s exposing the NSA and the U.S. government in general of what he considers their unconstitutional monitoring.  Although the heads of the NSA have denied that they monitor the data of U.S. citizens who are not under suspicion, Snowden says he has proof that they conduct “blanket” monitoring that allows them to search retroactively for more specific information.  Not only can they search, but they can program the computer to notify them when something they want to know about comes up.

 In the documentary, systems for data gathering are named and explained.  For example, there is Tempora, a program where the UK’s GCHQ collects data gathered from fiber-optic cables and then shares the information with the U.S.  PRISM is a massive data collection system that is the counterpart of the UK’s GCHQ.  There is also an XKey score, by which Snowden claims the NSA can track anyone anywhere in the world, including their computer searches, their e-mails, the location of their computer, and more.

 Broadened powers of the U.S. government derive from the Patriot Act, which was passed after 9/1/1, purportedly for purposes of identifying and apprehending terrorists and other national security threats.  But Snowden claims that the NSA goes beyond this, and monitors for economic, business, and other reasons as well.  Snowden, Poitras, and Greenwald were all let down when President Obama did not follow through with the promises he made during his campaign about government monitoring; in fact, monitoring has increased during his administration.  They have documents showing that policy decisions can be traced directly to him.

 Citizenfour presents the history and information about Edward Snowden and his leaks in a calm, methodical manner without sensationalism.  Poitras and Greenwald and his newspaper painstakingly checked to verify that Snowden was reliable, had sincere intentions, and had proof of his claims.  Moreover, they agree with him that there should be a reasonable, public discussion about the issue of NSA monitoring.

Not riveting, but meticulous in documenting a momentous event in U.S. history.

Grade:  A-  

By Donna R. Copeland