I finally got time over the holidays to sit down and watch Laura Poitras’s latest documentary CitizenFour. We have talked about Edward Snowden on the show quite a bit, and for anyone who followed the story as it was unfolding, there really aren’t any surprises in the film. I’m also a bit reticent to heap praise on the movie, despite it’s Academy Award for Best Documentary Film. It drags in several places, and could have benefited from some tighter editing, in my opinion. For instance there is one scene where Glenn Greenwald, an American journalist based in Rio de Janeiro, is testifying before Brazil’s senate on the NSA’s surveillance practices against Latin America. This might have been an interesting aside to the Snowden storyline, but he is speaking in Portuguese, with no subtitles. He goes on for over two minutes. What was the point of this scene? Were we just supposed to be impressed at Greenwald’s multilingualism? And the camera rarely moves off of Greenwald’s face to show the reaction of his audience, so it’s not even clear how his speech was received. Odd choice by the filmmaker.
Anyway, the heart of the film is Snowden’s revelations, and his subsequent status as a fugitive from US law, which anyone who believes he is a whistle-blower should find maddening. One salient point that comes through crystal clear in this movie is that Snowden was not motivated by any sense of fame or self-aggrandizement. He did what he did for one reason – he saw the government’s activities as being illegal and wanted to call attention to the staggering breadth and depth of the behavior to start a conversation within the US about whether or not limits should be placed on the government’s surveillance powers. The truly sad part is, while most have heard Snowden’s name, they do not know this crucial part of his story. They are content to accept the government’s party line about him being a bad actor, guilty of espionage until proven innocent. The irony is for those who have been paying attention, actions by the Supreme Court and others since the leak have served to vindicate and exonerate Snowden (in the eyes of many). The question remains how history will ultimately record Snowden’s fate, and whether he will ever be able to return to his home without reprisal.