Film Review: Citizenfour

At the end of last year I watched both the fictional and factual portrayals of the WikiLeaks story (We Steal Secrets and The Fifth Estate) before writing a review for another blog about the relationship Hollywood has with technology. And while they are not a trilogy in any sense of the term, connected to the ideas about information, technology and government conspiracies comes Citizenfour. A documentary following the Edward Snowden whistle blowing.

I had heard seriously impressive reports about this documentary, it’s initial but limited big screen release being heralded as a must search out and see, while it’s reputation so strong that it has taken home awards whenever it has been nominated including both the Oscar and Bafta for Best Documentary. To say I expected a lot is an understatement.

Laura Poitras Oscars - Citizenfour

If I’m honest, I am not really sure what I feel about Citizenfour. I know how it made me feel and I know what emotions it stirred up inside, but at the same time it has created conflict and tension. Not at the shocking revelations it contains, or the scale of invasion it alludes to, but rather, at the lack of focus it seems to contain.

And this is why I’m really not sure exactly what Citizenfour is about. It never seems to really go into any level of detail. It’s a timeline of bullet points. Nothing ever truly explained or expanded. It’s the clip notes from which the speech is made. Only I’ve come to listen two minutes too late. Part of me wonders whether it’s a case that the film is almost scared to expand out further, to make accusations, to take on powers beyond it’s means. But then, the other part is thinking that maybe, it does know it’s place, maybe it’s designed to be as withdrawn as it is so that it doesn’t step on the toes of the main media stories breaking the revelations and releases.

And if it’s the latter, if it is just a video journal of a few days in a hotel, then quite why it’s garnishing the praise it is confuses me.

I think this confusion is best shown by the fact that Citizenfour is condensed essentially into the week running up to the explosive leaks and then the period of fall out afterwards. Essentially locked away, hidden with Snowden, waiting for the world to repulse at the details he provides and so, it is very focused on him. And yet he spends large portions of time declaring that he wants to shy away, stay hidden, that it isn’t about him, the picture is far, far bigger and yet it’s him we are only allowed to see. It walks too close to hypocrisy at times to feel comfortable.

Edward Snowden - Citizenfour

It just needs to declare exactly what it is trying to achieve. To say I’m about  the man, or I’m about the documents. And not tread lightly between the two because I’ve ended up, feeling that I don’t know either. Snowden never profiled, his personality, reasonings and emotions never fully developed or recorded. I still can’t tell you why he did it. And if you asked me to summarise exactly what the documents show exactly, it will be a terse remark about how apparently democratic governments are illegally spying on everything we say, do or view electronically.

The documentary tries on a few occasions to expand this out, to explain it all, mainly by documenting Snowden’s attempts to talk the journalists he has decided to trust through it all, but it still somehow never feels real, or substantiated. I never really believed him. And while his claims obviously are backed up by fact in places, the documentary never managed to calm the lingering doubt in my head that all this was just one big hoax by a man trying to claim his 15 minutes of fame.

Street Preacher - Citizenfour

And everything boils down to one simple problem. That of trust. The underlying point behind all of this is that we should apparently have no trust in anybody any more. That nothing is secure. And that we are all living under a false freedom. And yet I have no trust in the people telling me this. Nothing is properly backed up, nothing proven beyond all reasonable doubt. It’s like the man on the street corner preaching about the end of the world. I listen, disbelieve and carry on my way. Unaffected and nonplussed. Fully aware, that when he finally gets it right, I will look mightily stupid, but here and now, ignorance is bliss.

I came into Citizenfour ignorant and I’m sadly leaving it uneducated, because ultimately it boils down to this: for me, it just feels too scared to show you the proof that backs up what it really wants to say.

6 out of 10 stars (6 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Film First Edition

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