Talking Movies: Snowden documentary ‘Citizenfour’ raises uncomfortable questions

Citizenfour is playing at FilmScene through Nov. 25.

It’s no surprise that right-wing national-security types think that Edward Snowden is a traitor. But it’s been interesting to hear prominent mainstream liberals attack the young whistleblower’s character. Former New Republic editor Michael Kinsley denounces Snowden and his collaborator Glenn Greenwald as out-of-touch romantics with martyr complexes, while New Yorker contributor George Packer finds Snowden guilty of irresponsible moral absolutism. And, as you may have heard, Obama also doesn’t like him either.

The new documentary Citizenfour, now playing at FilmScene, helps us to see past these characterizations — oddly paranoid in their own right — and take measure of Snowden. Far from an obsessed martyr, what we see through the documentary’s depictions is a mild, principled, reluctant young man. Think what you will of his politics, it’s hard not to see him as a good guy.

Edward Snowden
Illustration by Adam Burke

What makes Citizenfour so riveting is that it’s about the making of Citizenfour. The documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, recipient of a MacArthur ‘genius grant’ and a Pulitzer Prize, begins to receive highly encrypted — and somewhat cryptic — emails from someone calling himself “citizenfour” about overreach in governmental spying. Soon Poitras and “citizenfour” are setting up clandestine meetings and working out codes that won’t be registered by the far-seeing machinations of the United States National Security Agency (NSA). The first hour of the documentary is as gripping as any dark 1970s spy thriller.

Under his “magic mantle of power,” a red blanket that hides the typing of passwords, Snowden — “citizenfour” — pulls up detailed documents about the NSA’s massive power. As suspicious as he is of the government, Snowden trusts Greenwald and Poitras solely on the basis of their journalism and entrusts them with huge decisions about what to reveal and the extent to which he should reveal himself. By the end of the movie he’s in Russia, isolated from his family and friends.

Poitras doesn’t make much effort to present both sides of the debate — but what documentarian ever really does. Still, her movie, sympathetic as it is to Snowden and Greenwald, isn’t a piece of propaganda, either. Citizenfour is really about a set of decisions and the characters who make them. You feel the excitement, fear, uplift and disappointment of discovery and choice.

Insofar as the movie makes an argument, it’s that when governmental organizations like the NSA have so much power, they erode the privacy necessary for democracy. Even if governments don’t abuse this power, the fact that they have it makes us think of ourselves as subjects rather than citizens. Moreover, it’s pollyannaish to think that rulers will never abuse this power. After all, why wouldn’t they sometimes check up on their opposition’s whereabouts or the political groups with which their citizenry associates?

Throughout the movie, the locations change from the U.S. to Hong Kong to Brazil to Germany to Russia, along the way raising the uncomfortable question about the global rights of people. Even if we put serious checks on our government’s ability to spy on us, should the U.S. have the unlimited right to spy on everyone else in the world — terrorists, protesters, journalists, Angela Merkel?

During the Cold War, it was easy for us to look at the Stasi, East Germany’s national security agency, and see the evil of totalitarianism. It’s harder for us, conservatives and liberals alike, to look in the mirror. Sure, we still have powerful checks against totalitarianism, but could our fear of terrorism erode our democratic traditions? Could we develop our own kinder, gentler version of authoritarian capitalism? Or am I another libertarian paranoiac?

I do worry that we’re increasingly willing to sell our freedom for security and prosperity. I worry especially about the fellow citizen who shrugs their shoulders and goes, “Well, I’m not doing anything wrong, so what do I care if the NSA is watching?” But when I see a 29-year-old who forsakes his security for freedom, I remember that some things can’t be sold.

Scott Samuelson teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College. His new book is The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone.