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Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

All my aimless thoughts, ideas, and ramblings, all packed into one site!

Citizenfour (2014)


The closest you can get to a computer-geek, without losing any bit of your popularity. Maybe.

After making a few documentaries that put her on the NSA’s “watch list”, Laura Poitras soon found herself chatting online with an anonymously mysterious person who went by the name of “Citizenfour”. According to mystery person, they had acquired, in their possessions, numerous and numerous amounts of confidential sources, documents, etc. that would show the government to be spying on its citizens. Poitras doesn’t know what to do with this information, except to just take it in for herself. That is all until she finds out that Citizenfour wants to meet somewhere in Hong Kong, which she accepts, although she enlists the help of investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald to help her seize this moment once and for all. Once Poitras and Greenwald walk into some high-class Hong Kong hotel suite, they meet the man we would all know as Edward Snowden, who would then let them know a little bit about his life, what he has, and what he wants to do from here on out.

And the rest, as older-generations like to casually drop into conversation, is history; and by “history”, I mean what we are currently dealing with in the past two years now having known what Snowden found and revealed to the whole wide world about his findings. To be honest, too, there’s some problem with that known knowledge and this movie – while the movie likes to think that it’s dropping absolutely shocking, knee-shattering information to its audience, the fact remains, we already know what the government has been doing. Why? Well, because Snowden himself got on TV to tell us all, once and for all.

Boo to the guy on the right! More of the guy on the left! (And no, that's not a metaphor)

Boo to the guy on the right! More of the guy on the left! (And no, that’s not a metaphor.)

While some of you may think this isn’t a fair criticism, especially considering you could say that about half of the documentaries made about notable, infamous figures in today’s day and age, there’s something different to be said for a movie that thinks it’s showing us something new, something revolutionary, but in all honesty, actually isn’t. We know what Snowden found; we know what’s going on with his life nowadays; and we know how the rest of the world would react this newfound information. Nothing else is all that shocking.

So, for maybe the first-half of this movie, I was left uninterested. Uninterested by what this movie was trying to do with its story, how long it actually took to get to meet Snowden, and almost irritated by how Poitras herself manipulatively used bits and pieces of Nine Inch Nails to add tension to what is, essentially, just a bunch of typed-letters on the screen for us to read. As a director, no matter what sort of film you’re working with, feel that you have to add music in the background to make an audience feel a certain way, with a certain emotion, you’ve already lost some of the battle. You seem more obvious than before and, at least from my standpoint, make it hard for the audience to bounce back.

However, that’s what shocked me so much about Citizenfour, because it actually did bounce back. And quite effectively, too, may I add.

Where this movie ends as an informational-piece, it soon then begins as a small, but engaging character-study of one person we like to think we know so well by how the media portrays him as being, but in reality, actually haven’t the slightest clue about. Sure, some of us may think we know Edward Snowden because he, like most of us, is an innocent, seemingly fragile computer-geek that, by all his might and will, saw stuff that he didn’t like and went as far as to expose those wrongdoings to the rest of the world. In his own, maybe unintentional way, Snowden has been declared a “superhero” among sorts, and it’s because of this title, most of us think that he’s like your or I, just with more computer-skills and obviously a lot more paranoid.

Snowden lookin' sassy. Look out, ladies. No seriously, lookout. The government will be after your ass quicker than you can say "web leaks".

Snowden lookin’ sassy. Look out, ladies. No seriously, lookout. The government will be on your ass quicker than you can say “web leaks”.

But what Poitras and Citizenfour as a whole does, and does well, is that it removes all of the stereotypical bullshit about Snowden and reveals to us a very layered, meager and mild guy that, like all of us, just wants the world to be a safer place. Not just for himself, but for everyone else. And what Poitras does well is that it allows for him to tell his story, without any cheap, cinematic short-cuts to be seen; it’s just him, his bland, black T-shirt, his glasses, his fuzzy, frazzled hair, his jeans, his laptop, and his never-ending barrage of stories to tell about what he saw, what he wants to do, and what’s next in this possible plan of his. Occasionally, we’ll get a side-swipe by Greenwald (which were the worst parts of this movie, for me, but that’s just personal preference because I despise him oh so very much), and the Guardian intelligence reporter Ewen MacAskill (who I just wanted to give an big, endearing hug by the end of this), but for the most part, it’s Snowden’s story to tell and he’s willing to go deep and dirty with it.

He definitely backs away from giving certain details about his family, his girlfriend, and just where exactly he lives, but that’s all understandable. Maybe one day, in the near-future, when, hopefully, most of the dust has settled, we’ll get a straight-up, no-frills, take-no-names documentary that digs deep into Snowden’s actual life, but for now, and mostly for security purposes, this is as close as we’ll get to seeing Snowden, warts and all. Which works, because not only is Snowden an compelling presence here, in that he is so nerdy and kind that you’d much rather take him out of a locker, rather than stuff him in it, but that he also genuinely seems like a nice dude. You can definitely hold some of that against the movie for not allowing for us to make our own opinion on him, but for what it’s worth, Poitras seems like she wasn’t trying hard to take away from Snowden’s point-of-view or any of the things he had to discuss. She lets him ramble on and on, even if amiably so, but it’s a side of the story that most of us want to hear and she doesn’t take away from that.

Which doesn’t just do Snowden himself justice, but the people who actually want to know more about this possible “superhero”.

Consensus: For the first-half, Citizenfour meanders, but once Edward Snowden enters the picture (literally and figuratively), what we get is an engaging, heartfelt and occasionally stirring look into the personality of a figure we should all know more about.

8 / 10 = Matinee!!

Grunge-reject, but it's okay. He's better now.

Grunge-reject, but it’s okay. He’s better now.

Photo’s Credit to: Goggle Images

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5 responses to “Citizenfour (2014)

  1. Three Rows Back February 21, 2015 at 1:07 pm

    Well said Dan. Fine review of a movie I’m desperate to see.

  2. Dustin February 21, 2015 at 6:04 pm

    Nice review Dan! Looks like something I’d like to watch.

  3. Lauren (@lololovesfilms) February 21, 2015 at 8:15 pm

    Excellent review, loved this documentary and I hope it or Virunga wins at the Oscars tomorrow!

  4. JustMeMike February 24, 2015 at 3:25 pm

    Well Citizenfour did win the documentary feature Oscar, and you can now see it in HBO.

    Dan dislikes certain of the parts of the film that Poitras edited in – like the music, the conversations which we ‘see’ and ‘read’ rather than hear, Dan also dislikes Guardian reporter Glen Greenwald. Which is fine. He is, after all, writing a review.

    But there are more than just two sides to this film and more factors that are important. We must also consider that Poitras surely left ‘stuff’ out. We must consider that Poitras herself is on a watch list and her own life has been turned inside out.

    I think the film was and is an important document. The value of the film should not be diminished based on the fact that Snowden himself spoke publicly elsewhere.

    Whether one believes that Snowden is heroic or is like something else on the bottom of your shoe, is up to the viewer, but for me – there’s no denying that this Poitras film is eminently watchable and worthy of your time.

  5. Mark Walker February 26, 2015 at 1:39 pm

    Good write-up Dan. I just seen this last night. I agree that it’s already showing us what we already know but I still found it very gripping. Mostly for the glimmers of stress and pressure you see Snowden under. The man had balls. I’ll give him that. Very good film.

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