‘Citizenfour’ keeps government spying right where it should be: In the public spotlight

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As a self-professed non-fan of the horror genre, I must say most “scary” movies are nothing more than cheap jump-scares and loud noises. Few films of that nature take the time to develop a truly fear-inducing scenario or atmosphere.

Though “Citizenfour” (2014) is not a horror film – rather, it’s a documentary – it ranks among the most frightening films I have ever seen because of its unyielding revelations of the U.S. government’s spying programs and the implications of those reports.

The documentary, directed by Laura Poitras, tells the story of Edward Snowden and the sequence of events that led to his contacting the media, blowing the whistle on the National Security Agency (NSA), and continuing estrangement from the United States.

Among the first pieces of information viewers are exposed to is one of the early messages sent from Snowden to Poitras, which reads, “For now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell-phone tower you pass, friend you keep, site you visit and subject line you type is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not.”

That system, it is revealed, is the NSA – run by our own government – which could track Snowden’s every move, along with anyone associated with him.

Poitras is no stranger to controversy, beginning with her 2006 film about the U.S. occupation of Iraq, “My Country, My Country,” a piece that, according to Poitras, landed the director on a watch list.

The U.S. government’s suspicions, if real, would certainly not have been alleviated by “The Oath” (2010), which, in part, addressed Guantanamo Bay, a U.S. detention camp in Cuba. “Citizenfour” completes the thematically-connected trilogy.

Using the cinéma vérité style, Poitras documents the many conversations that occurred between herself, Snowden, and journalist Glenn Greenwald, among others.

Cinéma vérité, also known as “observational cinema,” removes much of the post-production elements from a film, leaving the camera as a direct window into the events on screen.

In “Citizenfour,” this style of filmmaking gives the impression that all of the information presented has not been altered in any way; in other words, it makes Snowden’s information more credible to viewers.

Let me put it to you another way. Americans were first exposed to the NSA and Snowden largely through major media outlets – MSNBC, CNN, Fox News – which are notorious for their unreliability and undeniable biases.

What “Citizenfour” provides us with, then, is a viewpoint that has not been tampered with or slanted by these outlets. While Poitras herself certainly has opinions on the matter, those views don’t change the fact that her footage depicts the source directly.

The film, of course, has its negative qualities. While the subject matter itself is compelling and gripping, the way it is presented can, at times, be dull. Lingering shots of journalists and Snowden doing what appears to be nothing will be lost on many viewers, to be sure.

Another clear detriment is the heavy use of text to explain some of the goings-on in the film. While it is often the case with cinéma vérité that there is no narrator, it’s inescapable that there is quite a bit of reading to be done while watching this film.

Still, these relatively minor flaws detract very little from what is otherwise a poignant – and sometimes painful – film. Its message has earned it numerous awards, including the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature earlier this year.

In watching “Citizenfour,” one is made to wonder how Snowden and the NSA issue seem to have fallen off the map in terms of the American media spotlight. Little, if anything, has come of the entire controversy – the NSA has not faced ramifications for its supposed wrongdoings.

“Citizenfour” is a film that simply cannot be ignored. It is more than a simple public service announcement like so many other documentary films. Instead, it is a call to action – a protest – that begs everyone who sees it to respond, and respond loudly.

“Citizenfour” will be playing on Friday, April 10 in the Brookens Auditorium. It will be available on iTunes April 24, but other dates have not yet been announced.

If you like my reviews (or even disagree with them), give me a shout on Twitter at @MovieMuseSean.