Yossarian, the protagonist of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, asks at one point in the novel, somewhat hypothetically, “Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?” The question is raised in jest, its target the absurdity of war, but it’s also intended to get at the root of what Yossarian was really grappling with – why so many people were working so hard trying to kill him.
I could not help but equate the same question with the story of Edward Snowden, the protagonist of Laura Poitras’ stunning, if unnerving, documentary Citizenfour. The big exception being that where Yossarian spent every minute trying to slip out of harm’s way, Edward Snowden – a whistleblower or a traitor depending on who you ask – has stepped boldly and willingly into the spotlight in an attempt to do what he felt was right.
The film begins in early 2013 with Snowden reaching out to Poitras via encrypted emails using the codename ‘Citizenfour’, in the hope that Poitras and the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald could help him to release classified documentation revealing the extent of the U.S. Government’s surveillance capabilities and ambitions.
While there are some introductory scenes detailing Snowden’s initial communications and laying the groundwork for the state of the current U.S. surveillance program, the bulk of the film takes place in a number of hotel rooms in Hong Kong. It is in these rooms, one in particular, that Snowden meets with Poitras, Greenwald and a third journalist, Ewan MacAskill, to discuss the nature of the information Snowden intends to leak and how best to release the information, as well as Snowden’s intentions for doing so and his feelings as to the life altering decision he has made in deciding to blow the whistle.
As the story unfolds over a number days and Greenwald publishes story after story detailing the leaks, you can’t help but be caught up in the alarming and tense nature of their situation along with the paranoia that starts to encroach on the assembled participants. When a fire alarm begins to go off outside of the hotel room and they begin to look quietly back and forth at each other weighing up its significance, you too wonder if their location has been uncovered and this is a ploy to have them leave the hotel. Snowden unplugs the telephone and explains that it would be possible, if someone were so inclined, to eavesdrop on the goings on of the room via the VOIP phone technology. We often see him and others stare purposefully out of windows, surveying the outside world, a world littered with vantage points, virtual and actual, for anyone interested in watching Snowden. There are undoubtedly those who would be.
Poitras documents Snowden as he sets about releasing the classified information that he believes the world deserves to be informed of. He appears to be at peace with his decision and rarely, if ever, wavers, appearing to have reasoned that this was the only decision he could have made. “I feel good in my human experience to know that I can contribute to the good of others,” he tells us. He talks often of refusing to be cowed and wanting to stand up and take responsibility rather than skulk in the shadows. He also states that he does not want to be the story, rather that the information he is compelled to reveal to the public is the story he wishes to be heard. “It all comes down to State power,” Snowden tells us, “and the people’s ability to meaningfully oppose that power.”
Given the confines of the immediate story, one man talking to several others in a hotel room, Citizenfour is truly gripping – surely a testament to Poitras’ abilities behind the camera as well as to the magnitude of Snowden’s decision in coming forward. And it would be tough to argue that the information at the heart of these leaks, as told by Snowden and relayed by Greenwald and MacAskill, paints an Orwellian picture (or, having already invoked Heller, a Hellerscape maybe?). Whatever it is, it’s hard to look away from.
The film, aside from presenting as a brilliant mumblecore spy thriller (only real!), also raises many questions regarding the nature of governing bodies in the 21st Century. What are the responsibilities of those in power, those tasked with the protection of their citizenry? What methods are reasonable in the pursuit of this protection? And who is it that they are they ultimately looking to protect? And if it is the case, as the participants of the film surely feel, that these institutions are no longer acting in the best interest of the public, who then can we look to? Where are the Snowden’s of yesteryear?