Director Laura Poitras's Citizenfour boasts an hour or so of tense, intimate, world-shaking footage you might not quite believe you're watching. Poitras shows us history as it happens, scenes of such intimate momentousness that the movie's a must-see piece of work even if, in its totality, it's underwhelming as argument or cinema.
Here's Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and, offscreen, Poitras herself, holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room, plotting the revelation of the National Security Agency's spying on our phone calls, emails, web searches, Amazon purchases, and everything else. Here's Snowden, the activist, conferring with Greenwald, the journalist, about how to make the story about Snowden's leaks rather than Snowden himself. And here's Poitras — journalist and activist — capturing their elation, their seriousness, their idealism, their spy-story jitters. Snowden unhooks a land-line telephone from the wall, explaining that even with the receiver down, a dedicated snoop could listen in; later, he huddles with his laptop beneath a blanket as he enters the password for an NSA database he's mining for documents. A couple days in, a fire alarm clangs, and for a heartbeat nobody breathes: Are the powers that be trying to flush them outside?
The planning is both thrilling and mundane. Snowden explains the massive scale of government spying, with the stolen files to back it up, but also lectures Greenwald about not keeping the same sensitive SD card jacked into his laptop for months at a time. Trim and proud, given to stiff pontificating, Snowden relishes this seizing of history, just as Poitras's camera relishes him. He's become the outsider hero he's imagined willing himself into.
But then, once Greenwald publishes his first Guardian story on Snowden's revelations, we see cracks in the whistleblower's principled serenity. Even before he's claimed public responsibility, his girlfriend back home is being interrogated. His voice scrapes in his throat as he tries — and fails — to describe to Poitras the difference between knowing this might happen and knowing she's actually going through it. Soon after that, Greenwald interviews him, on camera, introducing Snowden to the world — and removing him from it. Condemning yourself for a cause you know to be just is still condemning yourself, and by his last day in that hotel room, Snowden appears wan and harried, his face breaking out. Just watching, you might feel the same. Soon, that phone — plugged back in, for some reason — won't stop ringing, and Snowden realizes his freedom is now dependent on people who don't take it as seriously as he does: Witness the Hong Kong lawyer who suggests that Snowden could just cross town in a cab.
Poitras steeps us in these scenes. As in her previous films The Oath and My Country, My Country, she's adept at illuminating multiple angles of complex, even prickly people. Here, though, she's a convert rather than a journalist, and she never bothers with some of the basics: The film takes as its given the NSA's perfidy and Snowden's heroism, offering little to persuade anyone unconvinced of either. More troubling, here Snowden never faces any tough questions about which documents should be released, and to what end — he's the expert, and Greenwald is trying to keep up. Citizenfour marvels at what it could be probing.
The final reels, once Snowden is whisked to Russia, are a chase-the-news hodgepodge in which Poitras tracks her hero's journey, from a distance; chases the responses of Germany and Brazil to evidence the U.S. has spied on them; and works in some of the interviews and subjects she had been following for the surveillance doc she had been planning before Snowden first contacted her. Still, it all builds to another coup, more footage you can't believe exists: a reunion, somewhere in Russia, between Poitras, Greenwald, and Snowden. But something has changed, something Poitras doesn't examine — now Greenwald seems the expert, and Snowden the guy marveling at the scope of what he's being told. Greenwald dishes scoops (from a new source) so hot that he can't speak them aloud; in mid-sentence, he'll scribble the key words on scrap paper that he'll later tear up. Snowden confirms some of what Greenwald shares and sometimes looks shaken — and not just from the exile these three now share. Poitras shows us a few of Greenwald's notes, mostly items that have already made the news: U.S. drone strikes often come from a base in Ramstein, Germany; the chain of command on drone targeting goes straight to the president; the NSA's watch-list has well over a million names on it. But even the gist and scope of the truths that seem to upset Snowden are withheld from us. Citizenfour asks us to trust that these people know what's best — something that the NSA demands, too.