Film review – CitizenFour

Main appearances

Glen Greenwald

Ewen MacAskill

Edward Snowden

Director: Laura Poitras

Running time : 114 minutes

Robert Henderson

This documentary about state surveillance revolves around Edward Snowden as interviewee  and the journalists Glen Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill  as interviewers . The interviews were primarily conducted in Hong Kong  to where Snowden fled before moving to Russia.

As a man who has been much in the news  since June 2013 but little seen and heard,  it is naturally intriguing to see what Snowden is made of when interviewed at length i with a further enticement to watch  being the  possibility that he might reveal some dramatic new details of state misbehaviour.  Consequently, it might be thought  the  film  would contain plenty to interest and alarm anyone worried about the imbalance between the power of the state and civil liberties.  Sad to say  there is little to excite  the  viewer because Snowden comes across as a distinctly colourless  personality  and there are no startling important new revelations. Worse,  there is something essential   missing: nowhere is there any serious  attempt to test either the veracity of the information Snowden made public or his declared motivation.

Whenever someone whistle blows on a  state apparatus those receiving the information are presented with what might be called the “double agent” problem. Is the whistle-blower what he seems? Is he telling the simple truth or is he working to his own or  another’s  agenda?  Snowden   could logically  be in any one of these situations:

  1. He is telling the truth about the information he provides and his motives.
  2. He is acting voluntarily as a covert agent of the US state.
  3. He is acting voluntarily as an agent of a foreign state.
  4. He is acting voluntarily on behalf of a non-state actor.
  5. He is acting under duress from any of the actors in 2-4.

I did consider  the useful idiot option but could not see how it  could exist in this case. Snowden is clear as to his ostensible motivation – horror at the gross breaching of personal liberty by his government – so it is difficult to see how he could have been duped in any way. He strikes me as politically naive but that in itself does not make him a useful idiot.

Possibilities 2-5 went unexplored. They did not even press  Snowden strongly on how he was paying his way since his flight. (Always ask about the money. I once badly threw David Shayler at a public meeting simply by asking how he was funding his life). Being on the run is an expensive business. Snowden  had quite a well paid job but not that well paid. It is possible that he might have stashed away, say, $50k but that would not last long when he is living in very expensive places such as Moscow and Hong Kong, especially as people would know who he was and be likely to bang up things such as rent. Unless he is getting help from the Russian government, a surrogate for the Russian government or from the media how would he survive? Until  we have solid proof of how he is existing his bona fides cannot be established.

That left only possibility 1, that   Snowden  was simply telling the truth. However, the film failed even there. The two interviewers simply asked Snowden questions and accepted his answers at face value.

How plausible is Snowden as the selfless idealist he portrays himself as?  In the film he  appears to be surprisingly little troubled by his  predicament.  This could be reasonably interpreted as someone who had his present position worked out in advance of his whistle blowing  (All the shuffling about in Hong Kong  before going to Moscow  could have just been to substantiate his claim that he was acting of his own volition or, less probably, perhaps China had agreed to give him sanctuary and then changed their minds).  Not convinced, then ask yourself how likely it is that anyone would have been willing to blow the gaffe on US state secrets without having the assurance that afterwards he would be in a place safe from the US authorities?  After all, If Snowden is  ever brought to trial in the US it would be more or less certain that he would get a massive prison sentence and , in theory at least, he might  be executed for treason.

Then  there  is Lindsay Mills, the partner  Snowden ostensibly left behind without explanation. She has  joined him in Moscow.  When Snowden speaks in the film of his decision to leave Mills  without explanation,   he tells the story with an absence of  animation that would not have disgraced a marble statue.  All very odd unless the story that he left her in the dark was simply a blind to both protect her and provide a veil of confusion as to his whereabouts immediately after the initial release of information.

As for Mills she made a number of entries to a blog she ran after Snowden’s flight to Hong Kong.  . Here’s an example:   “As I type this on my tear-streaked keyboard I’m reflecting on all the faces that have graced my path. The ones I laughed with. The ones I’ve held. The one I’ve grown to love the most. And the ones I never got to bid adieu.”  Would  someone who is supposedly seriously traumatised  produce such a studied attempt at what she doubtless sees as “fine writing”?  Anyone care to bet that she was not in on the plot all along?

Snowden also engages onscreen  in some very unconvincing bouts of paranoia such as covering his head with a cloth  in the manner of an old time photographer  to avoid a password he is putting in to his computer  being  read .  He also shows exaggerated  at a fire alarm going off repeated and unplugging a phone which keeps ringing on the grounds that the room could be bugged through the phone line. Well, it could be but so what? Provided  Snowden only said  what he was  willing to have included in the film it would not matter if his conversations with the documentary makers were  bugged. It all seemed very contrived.   I am an experienced interviewer and to me  Snowden’s behaviour was unnatural throughout and seemed to be  Snowden self-consciously  acting out what he believed would be the behaviour of someone in  his position.

The fact that he went untested by hard questioning in itself is  suspicious. One can allow a certain amount for the ineptness of the questioners (see below), but the only reason he was not pressed at all can only be that the makers of the film and Snowden agreed in advance that he would not be pressed.

Apart from the stark failure to press Snowden adequately, the questioning of Greenwald and  MacAskill’s   was  woefully inept.  Neither had any idea of how to build a line of questioning or how to play a witness.  For  example, one of the most difficult disciplines an investigator has to master is to allow the person being questioned to do as much of the talking as possible without being prompted .  That necessitates  being patient and tolerating  long periods of silence when the person being questioned  does not reply to a question quickly.  Those who have seen the film American Hustle  will remember the Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper characters.  The Bale character understands the art of taking your time, letting a mark come to you rather than you going to them. Cooper’s character is for ever messing up Bale’s plans by rushing in and pressing matters.  Obviously in a documentary you cannot allow silence to continue for very long, but even allowing a minute’s silence  can be very revealing of a  person who is failing to answer. Irritatingly, Greenwald would not let Snowden stew in silence for even a moment.

Greenwald’s  other major shortcoming is that he loves the sound of his own voice far too much and has an irritating habit of delivering platitudes in a manner that suggests he is offering ideas of the greatest profundity.   MacAskill  was palpably nervous and  routinely asked innocuous questions and,  after they were asked, seemed pathetically relieved that he had put a question, any question.

Apart from the interview with Snowden, there was little of interest to anyone who is seriously concerned about  state surveillance because it was all widely known material bar one item. This was a recording of a remarkable  court hearing in the USA which AT&T phone customers took action against the state  over unwarranted surveillance which showed the US government lawyer arguing in effect that  the case court had no jurisdiction over the matter and being soundly slapped down by one of the judges.

Is the film worth seeing?  Probably only as a documentation of Snowden’s personality.  It reveals nothing new about the extent of the misbehaviour the US state or properly examined why and how Snowden did what he did. Nor would the film  be likely to educate someone who was ignorant of the subject, because the details of what the US government  had been up to were offered in  too piecemeal a fashion for a coherent idea of what had happened to  emerge  for someone starting from scratch.

 

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