Last night, I sat through Laura Poitras’ “Citizenfour”. I say “sat through” because, while it did keep me sitting till the end, the gaping holes throughout were whole-bodily fillable. I won’t say it was terrible, because as a film – as a story – it worked. But as a documentary – as a piece of non-fiction cinema designed to document some form of reality for the purposes of instruction – it sucked.
Citizenfour is about Edward Snowden and the biggest leak of classified documents in history. Nigh-on two hours long, it follows the second-by-second (literally and painfully) account of how Poitras and fellow journalist Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, met Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room before they broke the story of his leaks to the world.
The first scene of the film follows a strip of white lights through a blacked out tunnel. We’re in Hong Kong. In the background, a voiceover reads an encrypted correspondence between “Citizenfour” (aka Ed Snowden) and Poitras – all of it chillingly underscored by industrial god-of-music Trent Reznor. It’s masterful as a piece of cinema, bringing you immediately into the drama of the story. Anonymous intelligence official going by ultra-trendy, ultra-techy pseudonym. Check. Explosive revelations about to made public. Check. Imminent proof of governmental wrongdoing. Check. So far, on board.
Before we’re even introduced to the real Citizenfour however, we’re taken somewhere else, away from all the action. Here, at some town hall in the middling West, populated by a crowd of veritable wearers of tin hats, we find ourselves at what seems like the political action meeting for the local Socialist Alternative chapter. At the centre of the room we see Jacob Appelbaum, who with no inkling of hesitation, tells us that your Metro-card being linked to your MasterCard (and the NSA being able to access that metadata without a warrant) is the moral equivalent of the helicopters snooping through people’s windows in the first scene of 1984.
It’s a terrible waste of well-crafted suspense – an example of a Hitchcock film that devolved into an Infowars video.
When we do finally meet Snowden he comes across as an exceptionally-intelligent, well-spoken and measured person who, having discovered something he finds morally-reprehensible, has taken the career-ending, life-destroying decision to reveal it to the US public and the world. Desiring not to be the focus of the story, Snowden tells us that he doesn’t want the leaks to be about him but about the leaks themselves.
It’s an admirable sentiment, though it seems Poitras wasn’t listening because instead of using the rest of the film to inform us about what the NSA was actually doing, how they were doing it and how electronic surveillance has changed since 9/11, Poitras chooses instead to treat us to very important scenes of Snowden, in a bath robe post-shower, typing unknown-somethings on his laptop. Verily, another five minutes is wasted in an ineffective attempt at fear-mongering when Snowden’s disconnecting of his hotel telephone from the wall is implied to be the cause of a mysterious fire alarm (likely probably definitely triggered by NSA snoopers) on the tenth floor. The alarm is later revealed to be a routine fire drill.
The film’s advertising was framed around the promise that it would present the Snowden leaks in a manner which “goes beyond ideology”. In a profile by The New Yorker, Poitras herself states that “I don’t go into films because I want to make an ideological or political point”. Of course, it’s immediately apparent from the moment Appelbaum is mis-en-scène, that the film we are watching has a clear ideological position – that the US government is inherently evil and their electronic surveillance program is a Foucaultian nightmare writ real.
In and of itself, this is all fine. It’s not even the obvious ideological slant that bothers me. I’m happy to watch documentaries with a clear political position. I sat through Jeremy Scahill’s film about all the wrongdoings of the US military abroad – a film which devolved into a treatise about how Al-Qaeda in Yemen leader Anwar Al-Awlaki wasn’t such a bad guy after all. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a clearly-stated political bias in cinema (anthropologists acknowledge their own biases and call it “reflexivity“).
Certainly, if Poitras had advocated for her position more strongly (for example, by taking the time to dispel the techno-babble surrounding the various surveillance programs) and chosen to inform the public about what Xkeyscore and Tempora and Prism actually are and “why these programs are proof that the US government is evil and representative of the post-modern totalitarian world we live in”, then I would have left the cinema happy.
Instead, Poitras spends the last half hour filming Snowden and his partner cooking dinner from outside the kitchen window of his new Moscow apartment, switching thereafter to close-ups of Glenn Greenwald, the tragic hero, as he reunites with his boyfriend after a rough time with customs at UK airports. (Pro-tip: most everyone in the journalism game has been temporarily detained and questioned by someone in a uniform at some point in time. Some of us just write a blog post screed about it and then move on).
For what it’s worth, XKeyScore – the program that Poitras has chosen as her film’s stand-in for the “Treadstone” program – is often discussed as this impending sinistrum hanging over everybody’s heads. Problem is though, XKeyScore is never properly explained beyond its description as a “front-end interface”. We know its ontology but we learn nothing about its utility – we learn what it is and not what it is used for.
Doing my due diligence then, and in the interests of actually informing the public, in a German TV interview Snowden explains that with XKeyScore: “You could read anyone’s email in the world, anybody you’ve got an email address for. Any website: you can watch traffic to and from it. Any computer that an individual sits at: You can watch it. Any laptop that you’re tracking: you can follow it as it moves from place to place throughout the world. It’s a one-stop-shop for access to the NSA’s information.” Apparently, they can do all this without a warrant.
At first glance then, this all sounds pretty evil (it’s just fun to use Manichean moralisms sometimes isn’t it?) and worthy of further scrutiny. But instead of examining the issues in depth, Poitras ditches the documentarian’s remit and pursues instead the personalities slathered over it all – leaving the substance of the leaks behind and, by turns, showing us close-up after close-up of Gleen Greenwald jabbering away on his laptop in his Rio di Janeiro condominium. The final third of the film consists solely of journalistic high-fiving, interspersed with shots of satellite dishes in various locations around the world. Self-awareness is at a minimum, self-congratulation is at a maximum and in the blink of an eye Snowden, Greenwald and Poitras are world-famous. For what reason, we’re not exactly sure.
Maybe more than anything then, that this film won an Oscar is indicative of Hollywood’s obsession with celebrity – a much more damning indictment on modern America than electronic snooping will ever be.
When Appelbaum finally returns to the screen, he appears before the European Parliament, explaining that the US government’s systematic invasion of people’s privacy equates to a loss of agency for the individuals being targeted.
The point about online self-censorship is a valid one to make – as in: “maybe I shouldn’t write down these thoughts if the NSA is listening”. Surveillir et punir. It’s pure Foucault. But to say that a “loss of privacy” is necessarily the same as a “loss of agency”? Come on, mate.
Per Napoleon Chagnon – an anthropologist who spent his entire professional career living with the Yanamamo people in the Amazon – in the Orinoco Basin, the prerogative for individual action survives in spite of, perhaps even because of the lack of privacy. Among the Yanamamo, the publicity of all knowledge plays a key role in village politics – after all, without ogling bystanders there would be no need for the status-asserting bluff displays that are a staple in Chagnon’s ethnography.
It begs mentioning then that the non-existence of privacy in our contemporary, hyper-connected world is not proof in and of itself that we live in an Orwellian one. Orwell’s aim in 1984 was not to depict privacy per se as Man’s only barrier against totalitarianism. Rather, Orwell sought to defend language itself – the tongue and the writing hand being the only means of self-expression in political systems where the acceptability of ideas is held captive by a ruling elite. (Newspeak anyone?)
Insofar as Orwell’s main objective was to show how structures of power can shape the parameters of permissible language, Noam Chomsky alone amongst the anti-US left has grasped Orwell’s nuanced message, arguing that for a totalitarian regime to succeed:
“It is necessary to establish a framework for possible thought that is constrained within the principles of the state religion. These need not be asserted; it is better that they be presupposed, as the stated framework for thinkable thought” (Chomsky, The Manufacture of Consent).
That Poitras has produced and released this film (despite pressure from US authorities) and that this film has also received a god-damned Oscar (thus winning mainstream approval in American cultural life) is ipso facto proof that Appelbaum’s assertion that “privacy=agency” is wrong.
Quite clearly in American society, criticising the US government’s global surveillance program is as mainstream as apple pie and adulation of the flag. Applebaum’s agency therefore, is still very much intact when he fronts before the cameras and the world at the European Parliament. To the extent then, that Poitras’ visual critique of the NSA tries to illustrate an Orwellian reality with a slew of spy-film cliché and a Nine Inch Nails underscore, it falls far flatter than a truly curious viewer might have hoped.
Ultimately, my main problem with the film is that I went into it wanting to be outraged. I wanted to know what the bastards were up to, hacking phones and whatnot… being all super-secret et cetera. Instead, I’m left with the impression that Snowden ruined his life for no good reason, that post-9/11 US government surveillance is no worse than I already thought after watching the CIA’s impressive ability to track down Jason Bourne, and that Poitras sucks at explaining complex technical concepts that I don’t understand.
That said, at least I now know what XKeyScore is – because I looked it up on Wikipedia. I’m not too bovvad, to be honest.
In response to the Snowden leaks, supporters of the administration were skeptical of the extent to which the public had been adequately informed by the revelations. Obama himself said that “the sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light”. Citizenfour is certainly hot, but it’s emphasis on style over substance finds it ultimately wanting. I’m gonna have to go with Obama on this one.
Four stars for style but one star overall.