For anyone familiar with the Edward Snowden leaks (please find someone who is not, it would be worth meeting them), the form of Laura Poitras’ documentary is already hackneyed. Relatively low level NSA contractor with scarily top secret access leaks a shedload of dynamite state secrets to the Guardian and Washington Post. He then, like Assange estranges himself in a Hong Kong hotel, eventually starting a new life in that halcyon hotbed of freedom and liberal governance, Russia.
Russia, though the story’s end, is the access point for analysis. Post-Crimea, the ever-expanding ego of Putin knows no bounds. Single-handedly he has shred the post-WWII contract to defend sovereign, nation states bound in the origins of the United Nations. The rest of the world has simply looked on: a bystander, consciously complicit in the catastrophe now unravelling in Ukraine. Economic sanctions and financial freezes are the headline grabbing, so-called tough stance on Putin’s actions, but, like Syria before, the International community has been caught short and undermined, perhaps irreparably. Unlike Syria, there was no red line, just a red line of Russian red, redrawn deep into the heart of Ukraine: still rankling with the murder of thousands.
Meanwhile, despite a tumbling rouble, the terrorisation of Gazprom and other state monopolies by EU members and the squeezing of oligarchic assets, Putin has stormed in the polls, achieving an authoritarian’s popularity ratings and overwhelming pride from his populous. Putin can challenge Obama to be the most powerful man in the world; one postures and expounds principles; the other postures and performs in principle. A western strike back seems impossible and the incursion of Russian special forces into Eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region is the greatest open lie of the times.
Just this month, Boris Nemtsov, a late-nineties Deputy Prime Minister, turned leading liberal activist and scathing, media contrarian to Putin was brazenly murdered right in front of the Kremlin’s walls. Strangely, the only recorded evidence was inconclusive as a van drove off into the distance: hirelings who had savagely completed their professional duty. If you murdered Dick Cheney in front of the White House or John Prescott in Whitehall, we would soon identify the murderers. Not Putin, it is just a political problem, to be airbrushed from public perception through the all-encompassing powers of his state controlled weapon of mass dissemination, RT.
Snowden is no Nemtsov, nor has he ever tried to be. Perhaps his closest Russian rival would be the constantly harassed face of Muscovite dissatisfaction, Alexei Navalny. Navalny was recently arrested for leafleting on the Moscow metro and has faced libel, corruption and public protest charges in his years of waging war on the Kremlin. Snowden lacks the cheeky public image and powerful oratory of his counterpart in exposure, but his message is the same: protect our privacy, and give us freedom from needless government oversight. If Snowden had been caught in either Hong Kong or in the dodgy void of Moscow Airport, there is no doubt that the so-called liberal, Democratic Obama administration would have had a large scale show trial before stealing Snowden’s freedom and locking him in high security detention. The War on Terror has a new face; the war on Whistleblowers and their potential to dismantle and disrupt Washington’s secret state affairs. It will be stopped at any cost to libertarianism and the notion of western, democratic ideals.
Snowden, as he peers, blinking into the sharp hit of sunshine on the green space opposite his Hong Kong hotel room, understands the delicacy of his situation and the risks of his decision. This single shot showcase his self-consciousness of this danger. Snowden, locked high in the glass tower, stays resolutely behind the curtain, looking out upon a carefully selected scene to keep this Marylander sane: the green of home, so rare in Hong Kong’s hellish hustle. Laura Poitras, the academy award winning documentarian alongside the more recognisable, charismatic face of the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, reveals the Snowden psyche from hours spent simply observing his self-imposed incarceration. Poitras’ style is amateurish and simple, she does not need to appear in her own work, the story is there in all its glory. She becomes the camera; our illicit window into the most momentous man and week of our online lives.
Snowden seems fully aware of his significance. Although he always appeals to his lack of experience with media and his reverence of these selected journalists is unchallenged, the selection of this specific pair is testament to his selective eye and good taste. Poitras and Greenwald are perfect for the immortalisation and distribution of his disclosures. Greenwald with that puppyish excitement and devout loyalty seems to crave each secret like a mid-morning espresso. His voracious appetite for the material and unrelenting work ethic underline the role, strong, independently minded journalism should play within a democracy. Or should that be ‘the’ democracy, as the story expands beyond America to encompass Little Britain and the chambers of European power: Merkel’s mobile. Portuguese speaker Greenwald even pops up in Brazil to spread the message beyond as a quasi-Snowden disciple.
Snowden provides a light to guide us deep into the covert tunnels of the nether web, hidden from sight yet affecting us daily. His affection for the technology (the envy of Britain’s Tampura template) and Greenwald’s appreciation for the sheer audacity of the government’s outreach, offer a sweet counterpoint to the constant thread of disillusion. From youthful Occupy speeches, Jacob Appelbaum to middle aged cyber-security entrepreneurs to the godfather of whistleblowers, Bill Binney, Citizenfour offers a generational overview of the internet’s still short history. Binney, confined to a wheelchair, was the original Snowden, resigning after thirty years of loyal service because of Bush’s nascent war on internet freedoms in the wake of 9/11. All are uproarious and emotional, unreconcilable modern warrior rogues in their unlikely, collective guise. The Avengers Assembled, this is not.
While the film froths with a loathing, liberal sense of shame at the governmental endgame to restrict freedom, it has its moments of artistry too. Time to return to Russia. Snowden’s acceptance, the dogged resignation he demonstrates to his online deeds catching up with him, is hilariously subverted by some not-so-subtle creative licence. As an over-excited CNN ‘expert’ likens the situation to “something out of a Le Carré novel”, Snowden is caught at the bathroom mirror, preparing for his escape from Hong Kong. He fumbles around, wanting suggestions on stubble, slicking his hair back like an extra from Grease and even flirting with an inconspicuous bright green umbrella. Suddenly Citizenfour goes all Cold War. If we needed to know that this man, charged under a WW1 espionage act by the Department of Justice, is certainly no spy, this is the definitive evidence. Smiley, yes, but certainly no George Smiley even with those specs.
In one of the final scenes, as Greenwald visits Russia to update his spiritual leader on the latest leaks, there is a fine onscreen stimulus for reflection. Amidst all this chat of cyberspace, satellites and Tampura, Poitras inverts the tonal landscape with a well placed, more traditional scene. Greenwald communicates his secrets, exposures of POTUS’ drone scheme, in rapidly scribbled hand written notes. He then promptly tears them up at the end, leaving no traces of the conversation (apart from the documentary, but we can leave that aside for now). Talking face to face and writing by hand, have and always will be more secure than any encrypted emails or rerouted phone calls. Or so we are told as the Feds kick our doors down and steal love letters.
If your new friend, the one who you have just met and had missed the Snowden scandal, is now worried about her cyber security, tell her this. If, and it is unlikely, she* has a smartphone, say that she should switch off her location settings sometimes. Then next time you meet, the fuckers might not even know that you have gone to a different Starbuck’s…
*In the interests of sensitivity, I would like to state that this is not a gender specific role. Either gender can adequately perform the role and it is not too specific for trans-gender people. Political correctness takes no time; just do not trust politics and politicians to be correct all the time.