Hong Kong has been ground zero this year in the fight for freedom, with students and Occupy leaders battling police for control of the streets in a desperate campaign to maintain the Chinese territory’s relative autonomy from erosion by the central Beijing government.
But the city hosted much quieter freedom fighters a year earlier, not on the streets but in the confines of an international hotel room. When journalist Glenn Greenwald and documentary film maker / journalist Laura Poitras responded to emails from an intelligence community member who identified himself at first only as “Citizenfour,” little did they how deep the rabbit hole would be and that unraveling history’s largest spying operation – a worldwide mass dragnet by the NSA that targets essentially everyone on earth – would mean traveling to Hong Kong and debriefing Snowden in a hotel room from which none of them would emerge unchanged.
Nor, it seems likely, will the audience of Citizenfour, which takes the viewer inside that hotel room via footage Poitras shot as the interviews with Snowden unfolded. Even though we now know, thank to the courage of Snowden, and of Greenwald, Poitras and their colleagues, that the NS’s warrantless programs hoover up everything from everyone, domestic and foreign, emails, telephone calls, metadata and apparently contents as well, it’s nonetheless gripping to watch the interplay between source and journalists as the latter learn the details and attempt to figure out what to do about it.
Snowden, young, handsome, sincere, is outwardly calm, willing to give up his comfortable life, family ties, and perhaps his freedom to slow the U.S.’s slide towards a nation of subjects rather than citizens. But his Adam’s Apple betrays him. Take a close look and you can see he’s swallowing hard, even as he insists he’s made his peace with the choice to sacrifice his own comfort for the greater good. Later, when he rearranges his hair to muddle his identity as he prepares to slip underground, his curses at an errant cowlick underscore the anxiety he feels.
As a journalist, I’ve worked with anxious sources, tried to uncover truths, published secret documents and laid bare the backroom dealings of closed-door meetings. I’ve never worked on anything as momentous as Poitras and Greenwald’s brief, nor put my life (cf. war reporters) or freedom at risk, but Citizenfour nonetheless felt eerily familiar in its duet between source and reporter, as documents and thumbdrives change hands and broad contexts and telling details emerge.
As a former math geek and computer scientist, I’ve long been interested in the NSA, and knew that the nascent intelligence community during World War II had monitored every international telephone call and telegram from or to the U.S. As far back as the early 1980’s – when I worked for the military-contractor think tank that created the Internet’s predecessor for the Defense Department – I figured that computerized monitoring of international communications was taking place (though I never worked on such projects), so the Snowden revelations at one level were unsurprising. But they didn’t fail to chill last year, nor when seen again in the film.
Not all of the documentary takes place in the hotel room. Particularly unnerving is footage of earthmovers in the Utah mountains relentlessly clawing at the landscape as they construct a massive NSA data center to store the intercepts that Snowden says the agency in drowning in – so much so, he says, that the intelligence community has lost the ability to find the valuable information in its own hoard. Dogged in their pursuit of bedrock, the steamshovels’ unforgiving appetite for raw earth and their inexorable attack on the landscape become in Poitras’s sure hands visual signifiers of the greed for information – and thus power – that characterizes the security apparatus that has flowered since 9/11 under both Bush and Obama.
The tension between national security and freedom has seldom been tauter, nor the balance harder to strike in a world where every bit, byte and packet is subject not just to interception but also to weaponization. With his actions, Snowden ignited a debate that will long continue, and Citizenfour, the third film of a post-9/11 trilogy – the other films landed Poitras on a secret watch list from which she found no escape and drove her to relocate to Berlin – will stand as an urgent and gripping record. See it this weekend. The NSA probably already has.