Under the Radar

Making Sense of Snowden in 'Citizenfour'

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There are several reasons you should watch Citizenfour, the Oscar-winning documentary about Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor whose 2013 leak of classified documents to journalists set off a massive debate about privacy and government surveillance. The film is out this week on Blu-ray and DVD with an array of fascinating special features. It doesn't matter if you decide that Snowden is a traitor, a patriot or some hard-to-define combination of both, this is a compelling and important film about the business of protecting the United States and the debate over security vs. privacy we all face.

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Citizenfour was directed by documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. Snowden contacted her before he leaked the files and she chronicled the entire experience. The movie unfolds as Snowden reveals himself to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill. No one knows how the story will unfold and the uncertainty creates a tension that's missing from virtually every other documentary film ever, the ones where talking heads describe what happened in the past and everything they say is colored by the fact that they know the outcome of events.

Reasons to watch:

  • If you're an Oliver Stone fan, you definitely want to see this before his new movie Snowden opens this Christmas. There's sure to be a big chunk of Stone's movie that just recreates scenes from this film.
  • If you're a fan of '70s spy thrillers like Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View, Poitras (either consciously or unconsciously) edited this movie to feel like those classic espionage movies.
  • If you're in the national security business (which pretty much covers virtually everyone who reads this site in one way or another), this film vividly portrays the post-9/11 debates about what means the government should pursue to protect the country's citizens from terrorist attacks.
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In addition to three scenes deleted from the movie, the disc's extras include an hour-long interview of Poitras, Greenwald and Snowden conducted by New York Times journalist David Carr, conducted just a few hours before he died at his desk. There's also a half-hour interview with Poitras conducted by Dennis Lim at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. You also get this profile of former NSA employee William Binney, a documentary short originally created for the New York Times website.

Poitras' film should inspire debate. Even if Snowden is a traitor, money or a desire for fame don't seem to have been motivating factors. He seems resigned to going to prison during the course of the movie and the fact that he's ended up living in Russia doesn't seem a cause for celebration in his household. For better or worse, Snowden has forever altered the conversation about intelligence gathering in this country and, for that reason alone, this film is worth your time.

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