At one chilling point in Laura Poitras’ real-life spy story, “Citizenfour,” a fire alarm goes off at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong. Normally this would not be a big deal: It either means a trek down flights of stairs if it’s a real fire or an apology from management for testing its alarm.
But the situation on the 10th floor of the Mira Hotel is anything but normal. Poitras is in the process of filming the then-unknown fugitive, Edward Snowden, at the very moment he is handing over information about the National Security Agency’s massive and indiscriminate surveillance on its own people.
To say nothing of its interception of overseas communications by non-Americans such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
So the fire alarm does something you haven’t seen before in the movie. The usually unflappable and slight 29-year-old whistleblower looks somewhat shaken. Is this a ploy to get him to evacuate the building? Is the NSA already on to him?
It is, as it turns out, a hotel alarm test without warning or apology. But such are the stakes in that room in early June 2013 that the alarm makes everyone very nervous.
“Citizenfour” may be one of the seminal documentaries of this era. Poitras was there as Edward (“I go by Ed”) Snowden spilled the beans to journalist Glenn Greenwald resulting in news stories that sent the Obama Administration into a frenzy and exposed how much our own government is spying on us all.
Being a witness to history, you get to evaluate not only the character of a man many despise and others admire but to evaluate the ethical, philosophical and political considerations behind the American government’s aggressive response to 9/11.
The film technically is the final film of a trilogy Poitras has made on the subject of the 9/11 reaction. The first was “My Country, My Country” (2006), about an election in American-run Iraq, and then came “The Oath” (2010), about Guantánamo.
I invited Poitras to a Q&A at my UCLA Sneak Preview series for the first film. I found her to be a dedicated, fearless documentarian engaged in the subject of truth. Imagine being a woman with no crew whatsoever going essentially undercover in a Moslem, male-dominated society where, she revealed during the Q&A, threats were muttered by unknown men passing her in the night.
Her films obviously impressed Snowden too as he contacted her earlier in 2013 to help him become a conduit to the American public about this illegal invasion of privacy by NSA. He also probably knew she too has been a target of that very surveillance, stopped at airports numerous times because of her films.
(Poitras is now based in Berlin to keep U.S. scrutiny not to mention subpoena power at arm’s length.)
This led to the Mira where, as Poitras is filming, this private contractor for the NSA and CIA flips open his laptop and starts transferring classified government files to the laptops of journalist and author Greenwald and The Guardian’s intelligence correspondent Ewen MacAskill.
They discuss what stories will run when, how to gauge the U.S. reaction, when to drop Snowden’s mask of anonymity and then how to avoid a lobby filling up with journalist and ultimately how Snowden will go underground.
I must say this film has none of the pulse-pounding suspense or tension one normally associates with movies about espionage or whistleblowers. Perhaps it’s Snowden’s own calm demeanor and the professional care of the two journalists that rob this movie of the anticipated melodrama.
Yet “Citizenfour” is that rare thing: a genuine film exposé without the P.T. Barnum bombast of Michael Moore or the winking bemusement of Morgan Spurlock.
The film brings in other voices, especially that belonging to William Binney, who resigned from NSA in October 2001 after more than three decades, having raised concerns about domestic surveillance and mismanagement of funds at the agency.
Poitras also shows officials lying through their teeth at congressional hearings about government prying into phone records and social media data.
A follow-up occurs in Moscow, after Snowden dropped from sight and went on a wild worldwide asylum-seeking journey that ended when President Putin put him and later his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, up in an undisclosed flat. Here Snowden is told of potential further revelations that may lead right to the Oval Office.
Clearly “Citizenfour” is not the final word on the Snowden Affair. He now resides in a curious limbo while back home we all grapple with the implications, legal and otherwise, of his revelations.
But this film is essential viewing for Americans — and, for that matter, everyone concerned about a world where any expectation of privacy is perhaps dead.
Opens: October 24, 2014 (Radius)
Production: Praxis Films in association with Participant Media and HBO Documentary Films
Director: Laura Poitras
Producers: Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy, Dirk Wilutzky
Executive producers: Steven Soderbergh, Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, David Menschel, Tom Quinn, Sheila Nevins
Directors of photography: Kirsten Johnson, Katy Scoggin, Trevor Paglen
Editor: Mathilde Bonnefoy
No rating, 114 minutes