Skip to main content

Edward Snowden Laura Poitras' thrilling documentary captures the clandestine Hong Kong hotel-room meetings between NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and the journalists who helped bring his bombshells forward.

4 out of 4 stars

Title
Citizenfour
Directed by
Laura Poitras
Starring
Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald
Genre
Documentary
Classification
PG

The documentary of the year may also be its most hair-raising thriller. Part of Laura Poitras's Citizenfour's thrill is that it allows the viewer to experience, first-hand, history being made, as National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden, hiding in a Hong Kong hotel in the summer of 2013, exposes how the U.S. government used an unprecedented global surveillance program of phone calls, e-mails, debit transactions and Web searches in the trillions. For those who think the Snowden revelations are already old news, the movie offers extensive fresh justifications for paranoia, including more evidence of unbounded government surveillance and a final kicker promising bigger revelations to come.

Poitras, a journalist and acclaimed filmmaker, was a key player in the Snowden leaks and her perspective is unapologetically one of an impassioned advocate for privacy rights. Appropriately, she never appears on-camera herself but uses voiceover and images of her e-mails – white text against a black background – to show how the Snowden story unfolded. Believing she was on a U.S. government secret watch list for her two previous post-9/11 documentaries, My Country, My Country (2006), about life in Iraq under U.S. occupation and The Oath (2010) about prisoners in Guantanamo. She moved to Berlin to avoid harassment, where, in January, 2013, Snowden anonymously contacted her using the codename "citizenfour." He got her attention when he confirmed she had been "selected" for special monitoring. He had other revelations to offer, including, in time, his identity, to avoid others being scapegoated. They agreed to meet in Hong Kong at the Mira Hotel, along with journalist Glenn Greenwald, the exceedingly bright Rio de Janeiro-based American legal and political columnist for The Guardian. Also joining them partway through the stay was Ewen MacAskill, an investigative reporter for the same publication.

About an hour of Citizenfour takes place in the Mira Hotel, a vertiginous experience of revelations, paranoia (is the hotel phone tapped?) and strategies for how to reveal Snowden's role in the exposé. As Greenwald's stories for The Guardian and Poitras's for The Washington Post make an impact, they watch the reaction on the hotel room television. The boyish 29-year-old Snowden is nervous but sounds more matter-of-fact than zealous when he observes, "We are building the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind."

Story continues below advertisement

Almost another hour of the film offers background about the modern surveillance world (the subject of a film Poitras was already working on when Snowden contacted her). We see, for example, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and then-director of the National Security Agency (NSA) Keith Alexander lying to Congress about the extent of government spying. We also hear testimony from William Binney, another former NSA staffer turned whistle-blower, before the NSA commission of German Bundestag last summer. All of it may make you think twice every time you click, call, pay or travel.

The final segment of the film is an extraordinary teaser that demands a sequel: Greenwald goes to Moscow to see Snowden, who found asylum there, with some important new information. Over Greenwald's shoulder, Poitras's camera catches glimpses of quickly scribbled and immediately destroyed notes, indicating a second inside source and revelations leading directly to the White House. Inquiring minds – and not the kind that keep secret government files – need to know.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies