The world will never see Mark Felt's body language as he told Bob Woodward about the Nixon administration's illegal behavior or hear the timbre of Daniel Ellsberg's voice when he handed over the Pentagon Papers. But thanks to Citizenfour, a new documentary film by Laura Poitras, there is a digital record of the Hong Kong encounter between NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and the journalists to whom he revealed mass surveillance of innocents, as well as verbatim excerpts from the encrypted notes he used to facilitate the meeting. For that reason alone, the film will endure as an important historical artifact.
Citizenfour's broader subject is the surveillance state that metastasized in the U.S. and partner countries in the years after the September 11 terrorist attacks. While the film is less thorough and detailed in explaining how the U.S. government is spying on its citizens than Frontline's vital two-part documentary, Poitras's spare portrayal of the global surveillance state is dramatic, accessible to the lay viewer, and accurate—a difficult trifecta given how complicated is the subject matter. Her terse style is exemplified by her treatment of official mendacity. There are scores of instances of U.S. officials misleading or outright lying to the public about surveillance. They are boiled down in the film to two perfectly chosen clips. Then-NSA chief Keith Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper utter lies so direct, blatant, and egregious even a newbie to the subject can't miss them.
For those who've carefully followed the Snowden leaks and their aftermath in great detail, Poitras's skill handling well-trod subjects in a minimalist but accurate manner inspires confidence in the editing she's done to exclusive scenes of Snowden when he was holed up in Hong Kong hotels leaking information as she recorded.