Actors: Edward Snowden
Director: Laura Poitras
Format: Blu-ray, Widescreen
Number of discs: 1
Rated: R (Restricted)
Studio: Starz / Anchor Bay
Release Date: August 25, 2015
Run Time: 114 minutes
I am not at all surprised by the fact that Citizenfour was the winner of Best Documentary Feature at the 2014 Academy Awards, mostly because of how much the film and filmmaker became a part of the story. This is not a documentary which tells us what happened, but instead was in the room being created as it happened. With that being said, I would be lying if I said that I found endless scenes of intelligent people talking in hotel rooms and clicking away on computers half as exciting as the hype for this film claimed. This feels like a film that was praised for the filmmaker’s involvement in the story and what it stood for far more than the actual construction or presentation of the material itself. Others may disagree (including the Academy, apparently), but I found the actual filmmaking to be frustrating and dull compared to the tenseness of the subject.
The film was born out of director Laura Poitras’ communication with whistleblower and former CIA agent Edward Snowden as he revealed classified information about the invasion of privacy by the National Security Agency on the American public after the attacks of 9/11. Joined by the journalist who broke the story, Glenn Greenwald, Poitras eventually met with Snowden in the
Kong hotel room he was hiding out in. Several days of interviews
led to the news break and a majority of the footage for this documentary.
Though the implications of these events carry weight, the actual footage can be
somewhat dry, while the editing is downright dull at times. Part of this seems
to be editing decisions, as the film begins to drag under the weight of scenes
in which the camera lingers on the face of Snowden as he stares at his laptop
screen in silence, only the sound of keyboard clacking between the moments that
he briefly fills in the camera with explanations. Others have claimed that this
is the most tense and exciting film of the year, but I had to work extremely
hard not to fall asleep during some of these extremely uneventful moments.
Even if you are among those that find the non-events of the hotel room incredibly exciting for the mere fact that they provide a behind-the-scenes perspective of Snowden’s mentality during the admittedly significant news events, there are other aspects of filmmaking which simply frustrated me. Groundbreaking as Poitras’ film may be from a journalistic point of view, her choices as a filmmaker were somewhat questionable. There is no overall narrator for the film’s events, though that may have helped for clarity and the momentum of the film during the endless scenes of silent computer work, but Poitras does read some of the email interactions though voiceover. Many people remarked on the odd behavior of Poitras during her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards, and I merely attribute this to the director being more of a behind-the-scenes contributor, which is why I can’t fathom her decision to do the voiceover herself.
Perhaps this decision was a way of Poitras inserting herself into the story that she was very much a part of, but I would have rather she handed the camera off to someone else and appeared onscreen rather than offered the voiceover recording. She is so soft-spoken in this narration that it made the urgency of the material dissipate, not to mention the fact that the way she mumbles though the material makes it nearly impossible to hear. Add in a lot of onscreen text for other interactions which is impossibly small, and suddenly it became a struggle to read and hear much of the information presented. I can understand why many found the subject and the material exciting, but I found the approach in filmmaking to be dull enough that I would only consider re-watching this film if I were having trouble falling asleep. There is no arguing the historical importance of this film’s subject, though I have a hard time believing this was the best made documentary of 2014.
The Blu-ray release provides high definition images of Snowden’s bed head messy hair, while the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix does absolutely nothing to improve the mumbled narration. The only improvement to the material seems to come in the form of extras, which are fairly plentiful and dig deeper than the typical self-promotional fluff beefing up the special features section of home entertainment releases. There are about 17 minutes of deleted scenes, though the 113-minute feature certainly didn’t need the additional content. Also included is an additional short documentary about government spying directed by Poitras, a 30-minute interview with the filmmaker by Film Society of Lincoln Center, and an hour-long interview with Poitras, Greenwald and Snowden by the New York Times.
Entertainment Value: 6/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 7.5/10
Historical Significance: 9.5/10