I have mixed feelings about Snowden. After spending more than a year reporting on the
whistleblower patriot traitor spy skinny guy from North Carolina, I've gone from lauding his regard for civil liberties to deeply distrusting his intentions and methods for exposing state secrets. But last night, I saw Citizenfour, a new documentary made by Laura Poitras about the leaks. It turned the face of a scandal into Ed, a real human being.
Citizenfour follows the Edward Snowden saga from the very first emails the former NSA contractor sent to Poitras in January 2013, through to the eight days they spent in a Hong Kong hotel room discussing the leaks, and eventually to his exile in Russia. The film's title refers to the codename that Snowden used when he first emailed Poitras to tell her about the documents. He chose her.
Poitras, in turn, follows Snowden. She stays behind the camera, keeping it rolling not only to capture the first time journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill actually see the NSA documents but also to document Snowden's despair. She dwells upon the quiet moments, such as when he's waiting to hear his girlfriend of ten years respond to the news that he's gone and probably never coming back; when he's waiting for the story that names him as the leaker to hit the web; when he's waiting for the human rights lawyers to sneak him out of the hotel so that he can hide in a UN building. When he's waiting. And he's always waiting.
These are moments I imagined a million times while blogging about each and every revelation the Snowden documents produced. Moment's I thought I'd never see. In the beginning, we barely knew what the guy looked like. There was the first glimpse of him in the unmasking video produced by the Guardian newspaper: "My name's Ed Snowden. I'm, uh, 29 years old". Poitros actually shows the video being filmed in her documentary, and the moment the now-familiar image of Snowden appears on screen. That's the image of Snowden we'd seen in so many newspaper articles and blog posts, including Gizmodo's own.
That's not the Snowden you see in the rest of the movie, though. The Snowden you see is not just a guy sitting in a chair getting interviewed some famous journalist. He's a frightened guy about to turn 30 and, he assumes, about to spend the rest of his life in prison. This guy is the human we haven't seen before. At times, he's likeable. At times, he's pitiful. And pretty much the entire time, he's scared shitless, and you can tell.
This intimate glimpse into Snowden's humanity does not absolve him of his sins, whatever they may be. There is a case to be made that Citizenfour glosses over the more unsavoury parts of the Snowden story. Why didn't we learn more about how he originally obtained this massive cache of top secret documents? What about how he tricked oblivious co-workers into giving him access to classified information? Where exactly was Snowden for the 11 days before he checked into the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong? Why did he quietly hand over a cache of documents full of "operational details of specific attacks on computers" to a Chinese newspaper?
I don't know why Poitras left these things out of her film. With any luck, I'll get to ask her. But Citizenfour is hardly a crucifixion, despite the fact that Snowden himself suggests that "nailing me to the cross instead of protecting me as a source" would be the best way for her, Greenwald, and MacAskill to ensure that others weren't accused of foul play. There will be plenty of time for history to figure out exactly what Snowden did and when. Plenty of people will continue to speculate about why he did it.
Citizenfour gracefully avoids these judgements. Following the tradition of cinéma vérité, Poitros portrays what happened in room 1014 of the Mira Hotel from June 3 to June 10 of last year with as much regard to the reality of the situation as possible. Here's history happening, and it's a little messy. Everyone's a little shaky — especially Ed.
The paranoia is palpable in one scene, as Snowden unplugs the hotel room phone, suspecting that it might be bugged. It's excruciating in another scene, as Snowden ducks beneath a cloak to type on a laptop. "This isn't science fiction," he told a laughing Glenn Greenwald. "It's really happening."
It's still happening. But watching the transformation of a skinny guy from North Carolina into Edward Snowden, the most wanted man on the planet, is simply uncanny. There he is in that hotel room, just hours after his face was splashed across practically every TV, newspaper, and computer screen on Earth. Gone is ill-fitting white T-shirt he'd been wearing while sitting nervously on the bed and explaining some of America's most secret secrets to a trio of journalists. That was old Ed.
New Ed is wearing a black blazer over a black shirt. He's smearing gel onto his stubborn hair and trying to get the part just right. He has his dark sunglasses ready and experiments with using an umbrella to hide his face. Just a few feet away, CNN is reporting on the NSA whistleblower's identity and that famous image of old Ed is on the screen looking very nervous and slightly gaunt.
New Ed looks like a spy. And new Ed will be a fugitive for the rest of his life.
Citizenfour aired at the BFI London Film Festival and opens in select cinemas across the UK from October 31st. Screening information can be found here.
All images via Citizenfour / RADiUS / TWC