doc-u-ment (verb) 1: to create a record of something through writing, film, or photography. 2: to prove something.
Upon viewing Citizenfour, my first thought was, "This superb piece of nonfiction has redefined documentary filmmaking." On further consideration, I'm more inclined to argue it sustains the process in its purest form. Using spare but note-perfect choices of extended one-camera shots, director Laura Poitras takes us into a deeply secretive—and often dangerous—meeting with Edward Snowden.
If you think you know Snowden, think again. We know his name and some cursory biographical information about this now-infamous spy. Up to now, though, we have heard little directly from the North Carolina native, who is the grandson of a senior FBI official, the son of a Coast Guard officer and federal court clerk, and perhaps the most famous computer programmer on the planet. In an expertly paced 114 minutes, Poitras, an accomplished journalist and filmmaker, plants her camera in front of Snowden, documenting eight days that will forever change how we see our government, our technology and even ourselves.
"I hope ... this will not be a waste of your time," read an email Poitras received in January 2013 from someone identified as "CITIZENFOUR."
After some mysterious emails between Poitras and CITIZENFOUR, the anonymous tipster revealed he was a high-level analyst for the United States government. Poitras ultimately convinced CITIZENFOUR to meet her in a Hong Kong hotel room. More importantly, she convinced him to let her film their conversations. What followed became history.
Along with journalist Glenn Greenwald, Poitras listens to CITIZENFOUR/Snowden unwind a tale that would put a spy novelist to shame. Snowden's story, however, is no work of fiction. From him, we learn that our bank, debit and credit cards are tied to our physical movements; the government regularly reviews scans of our retinas; and our cellphones are... forget about it. No, strike that. Remember it. In fact, remember everything from Citizenfour. If, as instructed, you turn off your phone in the theater as this movie begins, you may think twice about turning it back on when the movie ends.
Snowden quite possibly could be a traitor, but it's equally probable that he's a patriot. Anyone who insists Americans reexamine the balance of power—between rulers and the ruled, the elected and the electorate—should not be ignored. Citizenfour will most certainly be an Oscar contender Best Documentary and is a clear frontrunner. This film goes far beyond any ceremony, however. Miss it at your own peril.