Friday, December 19, 2014

Citizenfour - The Reign of King Paranoia

This year's latest round of Oscarbation* has been focused largely upon biographies of great men performing past acts of heroism.  "Selma" is about Martin Luther King Jr's decision to march against the president's wishes, "Unbroken" is Louis Zamperini's tale of survival against the Japanese, and "The Imitation Game" is Alan Turing's fight to hide his sexuality while essentially laying the groundwork for the modern computer.  As good as these movies may be (and I have no idea, I haven't seen any of them), they are all simulations.  We cannot be in the room where history was made, rather we can only create a dramatic play imagining what these people might have been like.  There is artistry in those constructs, but they will forever be infinitely distract from the actual people and the actual events.

No film, until "Citizenfour" has managed to set itself within the real room with the real history-makers at the very time when they changed the world.  It is a film that feels immediate and dangerous.  Our emotions are not manipulated by dramatic technique injecting tension, rather the filmmaking compliments the yet-tangible crisis.  These events are still enfolding following people who are still being targeted by the most powerful state on Earth.  There is no actor playing Edward Snowden, creating the illusion of his nervousness, paranoia, and excitement.  This is Edward Snowden himself on camera, feeling those emotions.  "Citizenfour" transcends rote filmmaking, this is a pure historical source.

Most of "Citizenfour" takes place in a hotel room, with three people sharing the crampt space.  Snowden himself mostly stays sprawled on the white bed, while reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill take shifts between using the one chair and standing.  This room is a basic white zone of tasteful mild - the kind of generic slightly-above-average temporary bedroom that could be found in any city on the globe.  The first interviews have that forced awkward quality you would expect from people meeting for the very first time, but as time moves and the momentousness of their discussion grows, a bond is formed.  They nervously smile with the knowledge they are starting a battle against terrifying people of unimaginable power.  Even in this isolated room, their enemies could be listening.  Big Brother, long-awaited and long-feared, is now here.

It will be impossible to judge "Citizenfour" objectively as a film on a technical level while ignoring the political elements.  This is a movie entirely about a very controversial topic whose discourse is still evolving - basically what I'm saying is that I'm going to piss people off here by taking a side.  Those who consider Snowden to be a dangerous traitor will find little to enjoy in director Laura Poitras's critical portrait of the National Security Agency at the height of its powers.  Poitras is not an unbiased observer, she clearly supports what Snowden is trying to do.  It is for that exact reason that he reached out to her in the first place allowing her camera to be right on the fault line of history's shift.  For those who believe in what Snowden has done - myself being part of that crowd just to give full disclosure - will find this a existentially terrifying cyberchase through the incredible reach of the NSA.  It is a startling wake-up for the chilling world we have come to live in.

The most wanted human being on the planet, ladies and gentlemen.
Poitras begins her film as a simple documentary, reviewing the last decade of NSA growth and the increasing might of the US surveillance industry.  It is the usual show of interviews, court room footage, and stock B-roll showing us the Bush and Obama Administration's reliance upon unprecedented watching of American citizen's lives all in the name of "safety".  Snowden himself does not appear in the flesh until the middle section of the film, first existing only as text sent from an anonymous source within the government known only as 'citizenfour'.  The director, who chose not to appear herself, reads these emails, giving an impersonal and mysterious tension.  Suddenly then, the typical borders of a documentary break down, and the film features only Snowden and his reporters in the Hong Kong hotel room.  We are isolated to this single location for nearly a half hour.

The twenty-nine year old contractor has been described by some in the government as little more than a "low-level analyst" yet he speaks with an authority far beyond this claim of mediocrity.  Edward is supremely confident of his convictions and more confident in his job of stealing a treasure trove of intelligence files, unleashing a clear picture of the sheer scale and power of the US government's intrusion into the entire world.  This is the key act of the film, an extraordinary view of Edward Snowden's personality and demeanor - and even his uncertainty of his future - right while revealing incredible truths during an eight day interview.  The force of the revelation strike down like lightning, history smashing down in a single little movie, launched by a lone skinny White programmer.

Snowden is a man of his generation:  more a childish nerd rather than a villainous mastermind or even pure handsome hero.  He knows exactly what he is doing, why he is doing it, and where his strategy is going to lead.  He purposefully crafted this meeting and his high-profile status as a media manipulation.  Hong Kong was picked because of its ambiguous legal status and complex extradition position.  The former spook wanted to "become the story" focusing media attention on him and his sacrifice of his freedoms, adding a human dimension to this tale.  He is willing to accept his normal life ending, turning into a symbol of resistance.  Despite his claims of reluctance at abandoning his girlfriend and family for this nightmare, I can't help but think Snowden is excited, if not even joyful.  He knows that this meeting could end in the worst way, however his eyes cannot be bright from the prospect of a new unknown adventure before him.

Snowden just seems like a cool guy to be around. If I'm ever in Moscow I should get a beer with him.
Yet there is still an edge of danger to this central point of "Citizenfour".  Edward Snowden casually mentions that the NSA could have been listening to the entire conversation through a phone receiver, through which they can hear even if it's hung up.  Taking pages out of a Neal Stephenson cyberpunk novel, Snowden will only use a laptop if he's hiding under the covers, so that the watchers cannot see him through the webcamera.  The crew has a moment of true panic when suddenly the hotel's fire alarm goes off for no explained reason.  Is this some maneuver by the long reach of Uncle Sam?  Or is it just a glitch in the hotel system?  Somewhere below Snowden's pleasant demeanor is a slice of true fear.  Ultimately this young man has no idea whether or not this day will end with him as a free man, a prisoner, or worse.  Once the interviews end, the true gravity of the situation seems to dawn on him.  For a split second you can see nothing but utter terror in his eyes.

Then after the news has broken, Snowden is gone from the documentary.  Laura Poitras abruptly disappears him from her exactly as the man disappeared from the face of the Earth to hide from the laws of the United States.  While supposedly free, the charming character of Snowden that we have come to know has been swallowed whole by his fugitive status.  The final act of the film deals directly with the impact this eruption of leaks has had on the other leakers, as they all tactfully decide to avoid North America for awhile**.  Yet, even as events continue to unfold in rapid pace, one cannot help feel a disconnect.  Snowden has been introduced as a star, the hero of this story, and abruptly we have been cut off from him.

"Citizenfour" continues to make its point through its conclusion.  We are finally reunited with Snowden as he lives within the warm embrace of the great democratic state of Russia, living with his girlfriend in one of the film's big reveals.  Snowden hangs with Glenn Greenwald who slips him a sheet of paper, revealing truths beyond even the citizenfour's paygrade.  And that is where the film ends.  With the story clearly unfinished.  History continues to push forward, leaving the fates of every character in the drama uncertain and unfinished.

At last until "Citizenfour 2: Cyperpunk Boogaloo" comes out.
It is almost unfair to directly compare "Citizenfour" to the other releases of 2014, which can only be mere fiction.  This is not fiction, rather it is a presentation of reality making a strong point against the twisted nature of the NSA beast controlling our society.  None of the figures in this film are terrorists, none of them have any sympathies with Jihadism.  They are not even opposed to the values of this country.  Yet they, like so many others, have become targets of a completely out of control creature within our governments, theoretically serving for our safety, but now moving with its own irrational momentum.  Looking back at 2014, the world is no safer with this monstrous entity watching our lives:  terrorism has only gained ground using a mixture of strategies both high-tech and brutally simple.  The NSA has done nothing to stop them.  How are we any safer?  How is this lunacy actually adding up to a more secure, stable world?  If you are comforted by anonymous guardian angels watching your every move, then you may sleep soundly.  The rest of us may not.

There is a chilling implication to "Citizenfour".  Leaving the theater left me all the more paranoid, as if just watching the film had marked me for extra scrutiny and watch.  We can be glad that the US government is still reasonable enough to allow public dissent to be published (unlike other more idiotic regimes who cannot tolerate even stupid comdies) but otherwise little in "Citizenfour" should make you proud to be American, or pleased with our government's deranged path.  Posting this review where I am nothing but critical of the NSA's methods might even add me onto some watchlist, assuming the government can be bothered to read this blog.  Well, if there is a spook following all my online activities now, hopefully they're enjoying the porn, and not too bored by all my reddit NFL browsing. 

And you know, I'm the egotistical sort, so I can look at the bright side here:  It's always great to have another reader.  Glad to have you, NSA dude.

* Trademark Eric "BH" Fuchs, 2014.

** Laura Poitras edited the film in Berlin, rather than allow the raw footage to be captured by customs officials while entering the United States.   (As you should know, the Bill of Rights ends at exactly the US borders, but the intelligence community is universal, so they can search and seize any of your belongings with impunity.)  When I saw "Citizenfour" back in October during the New York Film Festival, it was the very time it had ever been screened for any audience.

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