The Oscar-winning documentary-thriller was released in theaters on Wednesday. It relates a week in camera with the young computer specialist.
The whole world is tapped. And the whole world knows it since Edward Snowden provided some journalists in 2013 with hundreds of thousands of internal National Security Agency documents, proving the existence of a generalized surveillance system set up by the major intelligence agencies.
Prism, Tempora, XKeyscore ... The general principle of surveillance programs is well-known. But we know very little about Edward Snowden, the whistleblower at the origin of the leak. Why did he decide to reveal this scandal? Did he measure all the risks he was taking? And his relatives, did he think about them? Some are even wondering whether he is insane.
"Citizenfour," the thriller-like Academy-Award-winning documentary, directed by Laura Poitras, partly answers these questions. For this third opus of a trilogy on post-9/11 America, the director filmed the whole week when she and Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist, met the whistleblower in a hotel room in Hong Kong where he had taken refuge.
No Desire for Heroism
Snowden, an American computer specialist, 29, occupies most of the documentary, a paradox because, from the beginning, Snowden expresses his distrust toward the media that tend to turn away from the subject of the case to focus on the author of the leak.
Not falling into this contradiction is the genius of Laura Poitras. On the one hand, she lets other people like William Binney, a former NSA middle manager who has condemned the agency's practices, speak. On the other hand, in the privacy of a closed-door hotel room with Snowden, she brings to light a man of infinite simplicity, perfectly measuring risks, a citizen of outstanding courage, without any desire for heroism.
To explain his gesture, Edward Snowden simply looks back on what the Internet was at the beginning: a lost paradise where "anywhere in the world, children could discuss as equals, with the assurance that we respect their ideas, with experts at the other end of the world, about anything, anywhere, anytime, in a totally free way.” He also points out the unkept promises of Barack Obama, who, instead of slowing down mass surveillance, has, on the contrary, accentuated it.
To lighten the documentary, Laura Poitras sometimes uses humor, which reinforces the dramatic tension.
Neither the First Nor Last Whistleblower
While Snowden gets to the heart of the matter, the surveillance system, the fire alarm system starts to ring. Surprise, surprise! ... Snowden and the journalists put a nervous smile on their faces. False alarm: It was only a maintenance test. The movie theater explodes with laughter.
Equally hilarious is the passage where Snowden puts a blanket on his head to type his password in absolute discretion. Glenn Greenwald looks back at the camera. The movie theater explodes with laughter.
"Citizenfour" is the nickname with which Edward Snowden signed encrypted mail sent to Laura Poitras because he is neither the first nor last citizen whistleblower. Actually, during a post-revelations meeting, the journalist Glenn Greenwald tells Edward Snowden that other sources contacted him.
The two men communicate by scribbling on pieces of paper to avoid the prying microphones (and the camera of the director). After reading the information obtained by the journalist, Edward Snowden is stunned. And that is when we understand that Edward Snowden was merely a firecracker. The real bomb is primed, and it is about to explode.