Movies are lots of things, but "important" isn't one of them. It's not that they can't be meaningful and life-changing, but when a critic's praise tries to go beyond that, it raises red flags for me.
Normally, this happens when the movie takes on a serious subject—think An Inconvenient Truth or 12 Years a Slave. But the problem is that at that point, we're no longer talking about the merits of the film but, rather, how we feel about the subject matter. (For instance, last year I got a few emails from people who couldn't believe I didn't put 12 Years a Slave in my Top 10: Didn't I care about racism?) Films with serious themes can be great, but when we place the worthiness of the subject above all other considerations, we're not really talking about artistry anymore.
The new documentary Citizenfour is a perfect illustration of this dilemma. I've already heard a few colleagues talk about what an "important" movie this is, and I understand where they're coming from. A significant insider's view of Edward Snowden's attempts last year to blow the lid off the NSA's intrusive surveillance program, the latest from documentarian Laura Poitras is a sobering overview of one of the country's major debates: whether the need for national security outweighs the individual's need for privacy. The result is very good, but its newsworthiness doesn't automatically make it a stunning piece of work.
The third installment in her trilogy of post-9/11 documentaries (joining The Oath and My Country, My Country), Citizenfour recounts how Poitras was one of the few individuals Snowden first contacted when he planned to go public about the information he had on the NSA. The movie's early sections have the suspense of a spy thriller as we read the initial communications between the filmmaker and an individual who identifies as Citizenfour. Soon, we're on the road from Poitras's home in Berlin—she fled the U.S. to avoid harassment from Border Control over her previous documentaries—to Hong Kong, where she and journalist Glenn Greenwald meet face to face with the handsome, boyish, 29-year-old Snowden, who felt it his moral obligation to blow the whistle on America's surveillance programs.
Some of the movie's strongest sections concern the buildup to that first meeting and the chronicling of that first week in Hong Kong, as this unlikely collection of individuals decide how best to proceed with the explosive material they're sitting on. (Poitras mostly stays in the background, filming the interactions between Snowden and Greenwald, who is occasionally joined by another reporter, Ewen MacAskill.)
Without overselling the All the President's Men paranoia—although the jittery Nine Inch Nails tunes can be a tad much—Citizenfour plunges us into the claustrophobia and anxiety of that hotel room. There's a palpable tension as these people wonder if American officials are going to break down the door at any moment, and how best to respond to the government's inevitable pushback to their reporting. (It certainly doesn't lighten the mood when Snowden informs everyone that any phone could be turned into a listening device remotely, even the phone in his hotel room.) It's so rare to see history documented as it's happening, and Citizenfour succeeds in humanizing the participants—Snowden comes across as thoughtful, but also understandably nervous and a bit overwhelmed by the weight of what's coming—without diminishing the stakes of their endeavor.
But that you-are-there immediacy is mitigated a bit by the rest of the movie. Not simply a fascinating journalistic story about how the Snowden revelations came about, Citizenfour also wants to look at our New Normal as American citizens go through their days being monitored by the government at all times. And it's here that I think the film lurches toward being "important" rather than illuminating. The sad fact is that Poitras's insights are now grimly familiar: The government tracks our movements far more intensely than it admits, ours is not the only country involved in this aggressive surveillance, and Obama doesn't seem to have done anything to stop this Bush-era program.
Since 9/11, we've become accustomed (begrudgingly or not) to a loss of individual liberty in order to fight the War on Terror. As with our annoyance with Facebook's inadvertent treasure trove of dirt on us, we're irritated by the NSA—but not enough that we'll do anything about it. Citizenfour interviews such experts as former NSA official William Binney, who has been a vocal opponent of the agency since retiring in 2001, but it can't quite provoke our outrage. In part, that's because we already know what Snowden revealed to the world, but I also suspect it's because we've become so suspicious of our government that there's little it can do at this point to really surprise us with its insidiousness.
The first two films in Poitras's trilogy benefited from her deep embedding in intimate, small-scale stories. My Country, My Country was an impressionistic 2006 snapshot of life among ordinary Iraqis as the U.S. occupation was occurring; The Oath was a rather amazing 2010 tale of a former Osama bin Laden bodyguard. The specificity of those stories served as a platform for a larger discussion about how the rest of the world changed after 9/11, taking the emphasis off of our own sorrow and making us focus on the real trauma we unleashed on others, many of whom were innocent bystanders.
By comparison, Citizenfour is a little too broad, too macro, to sneak up on us in the same way. But because its central figure is far more high-profile, it will definitely be the most popular installment of this trilogy. Which isn't a bad thing: This is an intelligent time capsule of our lives in the surveillance age. But if it speaks to you, check out its predecessors as well. They're equally important.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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