Citizenfour’s Personality Problem

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Edward Snowden (left) and Glenn Greenwald in a still from Citizenfour

Early in Citizenfour — journalist Laura Poitras’ new film about whistleblower Edward Snowden — Snowden explains his internal struggle over whether to out himself as the source of the evidence for broad NSA spying on American citizens.

Snowden thinks it’s much more powerful for someone to openly leak information about wrongdoing than to do so anonymously — it sends the message to government officials that they’re the wrongdoers, not the whistleblower. However, he is also leery of the media’s tendency to focus on personalities at the expense of factual analysis. He wants the information he’s leaking to be the story, not himself.

Citizenfour tries to straddle the line Snowden identifies.

It’s in large part a drama about Snowden and the journalists he chooses to confide in — namely, Glenn Greenwald and Poitras herself, though the latter is hidden behind the camera. As such, it can’t help but be a portrait of these individuals. Indeed, the movie doesn’t try to avoid this, employing lingering close-ups of Snowden staring out the window of his hotel room.

At the same time, it’s a summary and dramatization of the story Snowden broke and selected events connected to it. Ultimately, however, the portraiture takes an upper hand, at the expense of more nuanced reporting.

It’s unquestionably thrilling to watch footage from the hotel room in Hong Kong where Snowden met Poitras and Greenwald to share his story, shot during the days when Snowden was still anonymous to the world. We see flashes of the drama that inevitably must have arisen between passionate people aware that they were challenging the most powerful security state in the world. Snowden is distraught over Greenwald’s initially lax security protections on his laptop; Greenwald looks concerned at some of Snowden’s more grandiose pronouncements.

With his clean goatee and square glasses, Snowden comes across initially as the model of a certain type of IT worker. Yet he shows clear evidence of a strong political philosophy and interest in world affairs. Over the course of his conversations, he seems alternately altruistic, doubtful, arrogant, and like someone with a bit of a martyr complex (he tells Poitras to “nail him to a cross”). He’s also tormented by what he knows his family and partner are experiencing thousands of miles away.

I should say here that I’m unqualified to judge Snowden —he acted with more courage than I ever have —but such personality judgment is what the film invites.

Initially Snowden seems to be considering returning to the United States and serving jail time. But something changes his mind —perhaps the Obama administration’s decision to charge him under the Espionage Act, which as his lawyers explain in the film, is a law that precludes any defense of acting in the public interest. In any event, we follow his decision to apply for refugee status at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in Hong Kong, and his subsequent flight to Moscow. The movie ends with Greenwald visiting Snowden in Moscow, filling him in about new leaks (in this case, concerning the authorization of drone strikes, though that is not made very clear).

Of course, the film isn’t just about Snowden. Poitras also tries to give us a sense of the other foot-soldiers in the fight for privacy —notably William Binney, an earlier NSA whistleblower, and Jacob Appelbaum, an online privacy expert —and the intelligence programs they addressed.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t capture some of the nuances of how these programs operate, and therefore fails to examine their legal or moral justifiability.

Key questions go unanswered: How much information from Americans’communications, Internet history, and location is collected by the NSA? How often was it accessed without a warrant? Did the NSA provide any data on foreign companies to those based in the United States? The NSA’s collection of this information alone is certainly cause for concern, even outrage, but greater clarity about these gray areas would have been helpful.

A film might not be well-suited to capturing this nuance. About two-thirds of the way through the movie, Poitras displays some of the documents Snowden shared with the press. But without context or explanation, it’s hard to deduce much from them.

Nonetheless, more might have been accomplished if the director were willing to focus more on investigation and less on personalities. For whatever reason, I don’t think Poitras was willing to do so. For example, she includes footage of Binney saying that after 9/11, the NSA started spying on everybody, and Appelbaum saying that the NSA actively attacks anyone it can if the agency perceives an advantage. But she neither challenges nor substantiates these claims, which seem likely to be exaggerations.

The likeliest explanation for this shortcoming, to my mind, is that Poitras hoped to preserve a neater narrative — with clear heroes and villains — because that’s what audiences respond to most strongly.

It’s important to recognize that the current debate generated by Snowden’s revelations is as much about the rights of whistleblowers and journalists as it is about the individual right to privacy.

To her credit, Poitras makes this explicit. Snowden’s story is just one in a portfolio of sagas about journalists and whistleblowers — including many former NSA employees — who have been harassed by the federal government. James Risen, a New York Times reporter, still faces the threat of jail time for refusing to testify against one of his alleged sources, who is the subject of an espionage case. Poitras, of course, has been harassed at airports dozens of times, as was Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, when he was returning from a meeting with Poitras.

Poitras and Greenwald clearly have a stake in this power struggle, even if that stake is their ability to act in what they see as the public interest. Although they have a multitude of facts and persuasive arguments on their side, their work should still be taken with a fistful of salt. Perhaps it’s too naive to ask them to refrain from any sort of spin — especially when the U.S. government has demonstrably lied to the public, with much greater power at its disposal. But in the long run, they could contribute much more to our democracy if they did.

Nathaniel Eisen is a freelance author interested in the intersections of trade, human rights, security policy, and the environment.