Whistling in the Dark

A Documentary by Laura Poitras • 114 min. • Rated R
Review by John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Volunteer Director

When I was an adolescent I read the popular fictional tale of an imaginary future when Big Brother watched its citizen’s every move. George Orwell’s 1984  (first published in 1949) seems almost quaint nowadays, if not passé. Yet its depiction of nation states engaged in perpetual wars, pervasive government surveillance in the name of security, a techno-gobbledygook language (known as Newspeak, in that case, instead of encryption-ease nowadays), and a small 1% elite holding all the cards constitutes themes that seem to have a familiar ring.

Likewise, there is a long tradition in filmmaking about the abuse of governmental powers, with underdogs and whistleblowers fighting the system’s overreach, and the public’s indifference, ignorance, or both. If it is not a wholly mythic tale, sometimes such David-and-Goliath dramas begin with the claim (or disclaimer) the film is “based on a true story.” The viewer is then left to decide how much is true, and how much the truth has been stretched or compressed for so-called “dramatic effect.”  

When it comes to documentaries there is an even heightened expectation that any truths expressed will be substantiated by objective, balanced fact-finding. But there is still the requirement to be simultaneously engaging and entertaining, lest the lecture become too boring. It can be a tough sell.  

What makes CITIZENFOUR simultaneously both compelling and seemingly un-dramatic in a theatrical sense is that it isn’t based on a true story, after the fact. Instead, it’s a real story that unfolds in real time.  Regardless of whatever personal predisposed opinions each viewer may have at this point nearly two years later about the famous (or infamous) main character, the filmmaker takes us to the front lines of a battle that has yet to begin; with raw footage of Edward Snowden’s deliberations and declared intentions, before he even puts the whistle to his lips.  

It is the kind of exclusive scoop with unfettered access of which most investigative reporters and documentarians can only dream. It is this front row seat every viewer is given of an unscripted non-actor and real-life character playing a role only he can play that makes CITIZENFOUR fascinating to watch. 

Even in those minutes when this rather long film seems rather tedious and mundane, it’s helpful to remember that -- in the midst of such ordinariness -- some extraordinary event is about to occur. A rather geeky computer nerd with unruly hair and dressed in a white t-shirt will sit on the rumpled sheets of a Hong Kong hotel room bed in front of a camera for eight days, as he discusses his motivation and justification for blowing the security lid off of the post-modern world’s only superpower.  As suspense thrillers go, you can’t get any more real than this:

“It will be your decision as to whether or how to declare my involvement,” Snowden writes to Poitras when he first emails the filmmaker, using the handle Citizenfour.  “My personal desire is that you paint the target directly on my back. No one, not even my most trusted confidante, is aware of my intentions, and it would not be fair for them to fall under suspicion for my actions. You may be the only one who can prevent that, and that is by immediately nailing me to the cross rather than trying to protect me as a source.”

Every film tells a story, and the way the story gets told depends to a large extent on the storyteller. With every film, the filmmaker sets the stage, shoots the angles, tempers the pace and development of the story, and weaves a narrative in a deliberate way to evoke some kind of response from a would-be viewer. In short, it is difficult – if not impossible -- to separate the message from the messenger.  And Laura Poitras is no exception. 

When she asked Snowden why she was the one he contacted, he told her it was because of her two prior, post-9/11 documentaries that dealt with America’s invasion of Iraq, and the Gitmo detention facility (with CITIZENFOUR now completing her so-called Trilogy).  Her perspective – if not bias – with those earlier works was known to Snowden. Which raises perhaps the most important question when it comes to critiquing a documentarian’s work.

Bruce Sinofsky, a leading American documentary filmmaker (Brothers Keeper, Paradise Lost) died earlier this year. But in a 1992 NPR interview he said he did not believe documentaries could ever really be objective, and therefore the filmmaker bears a huge responsibility. “You can make some person look incredibly guilty, incredibly innocent, incredibly foolish, incredibly hypocritical,” he said. “We have great power, and we have to be very careful in how we do that.”

In this regard, Poitras undeniably portrays her main character as genuinely sincere in his own beliefs, if nothing else. He believes personal freedom is virtually synonymous with a citizen’s privacy rights; just as others in the film argue the same case. But he also speaks of personal accountability for the consequences of his actions that he knows full well is not only a breach of his confidentiality agreement with his employer who’s a NSA sub-contractor; but that his civil disobedience will be somehow deemed illegal . In fact, he was charged with violating The Espionage Act of 1917. 

While everyone else may debate whether he’s a traitor or true patriot, egotistical media hound or principled idealist, the camera never catches Snowden speaking in those terms. In fact, he makes a point from the outset that -- despite the filmmaker ultimately choosing his own “handle” for the film’s title -- he says he doesn’t want the focus to be about him; lest he become a distraction from the larger point he’s trying to make. Instead, he is portrayed as almost wanting to rise above the firestorm that is about to erupt.  Of course, the government will attempt to redirect all the focus on what he did, not what it did.

CITIZENFOUR is ultimately about the one freedom that can never be restrained or denied; which is the right of one’s individual personal conscience, and the life choices one makes as a result, with the ensuing consequences.

While he himself doesn’t say it, CITIZENFOUR is ultimately about the one freedom that can never be restrained or denied; which is the right of one’s individual personal conscience, and the life choices one makes as a result, with the ensuing consequences. 

In the end, Ed Snowden is left whistling in the dark.  The origin of that particular phrase has two variant definitions.  As a colloquial expression, it means to make a show of bravery despite one’s fears, and put on a brave front.  

As an idiomatic expression, it can also mean to speak of something, despite having little knowledge of it.  

In the case of Mr. Snowden, each viewer is left to decide which definition aptly applies.  jb