Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Citizen Four

I’ve been fascinated by the Edward Snowden case since it broke in 2013. Snowden revealed a bevvy of NSA documents, showing the government’s far-reaching surveillance abilities.  Particularly disconcerting was the government’s ability to access phone records and internet communications. Snowden became privy to NSA documents while working for the consulting firm of Booz Hamilton. Disturbed by what he perceived as a government overstepping its bounds, Snowden turned whistleblower.  

Citizen Four, directed by Laura Poitras, documents the days leading up to Snowden’s revelations and the aftermath.  Snowden was not interested in publishing the documents WikiLeaks-style for fear that he would reveal info that would jeopardize legitimate intelligent operations and individuals involved in such operations.  Instead, Snowden contacts Poitras, whose documentary work he respected, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, and The Guardian’s Ewan MacAskill.  Working as a team, they decide the best way to release the information.

Snowden is not only cognizant of the havoc his revelations will unleash, but also understands the personal risks.  Not only will he be cut-off from friends and family, but he’ll face treason charges under the auspices of the Espionage Act.  The film opens with Snowden’s cat and mouse courting of Poitras.  We see and hear a series of email exchanges.  Dribs and drabs of heavily encrypted information flow between the two.  Poitras is sucked in and the team assembles in Hong Kong, where Snowden has taken refuge, aware that Hong Kong is unlikely to extradite Snowden once his allegations are revealed.

This section of the film is fascinating.  The film’s subjects are strangers, undertaking a damning project, rife with danger.  Watching the group strategizing is a fascinating process.  Once the documents are leaked, Snowden is forced underground and his journey takes him from Hong Kong to Moscow.  From this point on we rarely see Snowden, most of his communication now coming in the form of encrypted emails. Snowden’s disappearance certainly has a chilling effect.  He’s at the center of the storm, yet is effectively silenced by his precarious political standing.  He’s granted asylum in Moscow, but that asylum seems tenuous at best. 

The Snowden story is fascinating on many levels.  As digital citizens, I think it’s important that we are aware of who has access to our communications. I think it’s important that we understand our conversations are not private.  We live in a digital age where we live so much of our lives on-line. I have a middle schooler. My son and his friends will live their entire lives sharing information on-line.  Their digital footprint will be huge.  What will these intrusions on privacy mean to them?  

One of the central concerns at the core of the case is whether we should be willing to give up some of our civil liberties for increased safety against terrorism. The film certainly addresses this, but if I had a complaint about the movie, it’s that due to the film’s vérité nature, Citizen Four is sometimes hard to read.  Clearly Poitras, along with Snowden, believe that the government’s surveillance and obfuscation of justice is detrimental to free speech, and that has far-reaching, negative implications.  That critique was clear to me, but I don’t know if that critique will hit home to those who might be skeptical to this line of thinking.  

Any filmmaker that takes on a controversial subject should be aware that their film has skeptics. Presumably you want to win over those skeptics, get them to change their opinions on a hot-button issue. Otherwise, you’re just preaching to the converted. Many people watching this doc are probably anti-Snowden, anti-whistleblower, and fear terrorist attacks to the point that they would be willing to give up a certain level of privacy to prevent future attacks.  I’m not sure Citizen Four’s approach is enough to get them to change their opinions.  I return to my middle-schooler.  He’s not doing anything treasonous on-line.  Why should he care if the government has access to his email?  What are they going to find out?  That he’s mad at his math teacher?  I walked into Citizen Four thinking that this film would need to be required viewing for any young person navigating today’s digital landscape.  But I’m not sure that your average teen would be able to fully understand the socio-political critique. I wanted Citizen Four to have the impact of An Inconvenient Truth.  Direct and chilling.  Citizen Four doesn’t quite deliver in that way.  That’s not how it’s designed, but I wish it had been.

Still, it’s a must see.

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