A human touch to iconic story in Citizenfour [Review]

A human touch to iconic story in Citizenfour [Review]


Edward Snowden (left) talking to reporter Glenn Greenwald at the Mira Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui in Citizenfour
Edward Snowden (left) talking to reporter Glenn Greenwald at the Mira Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui in Citizenfour

If you’ve been following the news, you already know how Citizenfour starts and ends, but the journey is still a compelling one with unexpected moments that could shock you.

Just in case you’ve forgotten, Edward Snowden is an I.T. contractor who used to work for the National Security Agency in the U.S. He came to Hong Kong in the summer of 2013 and leaked details about how the U.S. agency was collecting data on ordinary citizens from services like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. The movie, which won this year’s Academy Award for best documentary, is called Citizenfour because that’s the alias he used when he contacted the filmmaker Laura Poitras.

After a screening of Citizenfour, director Laura Poitras joins a panel to talk surveillance and how it can affect Hong Kong in the future 

he documentary starts before Poitras met Snowden; it introduces you to characters like William Binney, another NSA employee who resigned after a long career because he realised that a programme he helped develop was being used to spy on Americans. Even if you’ve been following all the developments with Snowden since 2013, you may not have all this background and it helps you appreciate the massive scale of what the NSA is doing.

The film then builds up to Snowden’s arrival in Hong Kong and we see him telling Glenn Greenwald, a columnist at The Guardian, what he knows about the NSA surveillance programmes, as well as how he reacts to his story being played on international news channels. That also adds to what we already know, because we can see the lengths to which Snowden goes to make sure the NSA is not listening in on his conversations in the hotel. There’s a sequence involving a fire alarm which is particularly effective.

The last act follows Snowden to Moscow. We see Greenwald showing him the new information he uncovered about just how huge the NSA surveillance programmes are, and how high they go up the chain of command in the U.S. government, and Snowden himself says it’s ridiculous. There’s some added tension because Greenwald writes the information on bits of paper, and we don’t see what he wrote right away.

At times, the film feels long because again, we know from the news exactly what happens next. But getting to observe Snowden up close adds an extra, more human, layer to what is already a historic story.

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This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Human touch to iconic story


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