‘Citizenfour’ Didn’t Want to Be a Star
The Oscar-winning documentary cements Edward Snowden’s fame
Filmmaker Laura Poitras walked onto the stage of the Dolby Theatre and accepted the Oscar for best documentary. She was nervous, and her voice wavered as she thanked those who helped make Citizenfour—her portrait of famed whistleblower Edward Snowden.
She thanked Snowden for leaking the information, then warned the audience about rampant, unchecked government surveillance. She told everyone that those in power are making too many decisions in secret—and that American citizens are losing the ability to check those decisions.
Then she walked off stage, and the camera cut to the ceremony’s host—the charming Neil Patrick Harris. “Edward Snowden, the subject of Citizenfour couldn’t be here tonight for some treason,” Harris said. The crowd of celebrities and filmmakers laughed, and ABC cut to commercial.
In the Oscar-winning film, Poitras chronicles the beginning of the Snowden saga. The film unfolds on computer screens, courts and hotel rooms.
Snowden—the CIA analyst turned whistleblower—is its focus. Which is exactly what he didn’t want.
Early in the doc, journalist Glenn Greenwald grills Snowden on how he wants to handle revealing himself to the world. Why is he leaking the information? Who is he? What does he hope to accomplish?
Snowden says he wants to wait as long as possible before coming forward.
“I feel the modern media has a big focus on personalities,” he explains. “I’m a little concerned that the more we focus on that the more they’re going to use that as a distraction … I’m not the story.”
Months later, Wired magazine profiled Snowden. The cover of the August 2014 issue depicted a pensive man cradling an American flag to his heart. The issue devoted 1,000 words to the photo shoot.
Snowden is a star—whether he wanted it or not—and he’s risen to the occasion. Now the documentary about the early days of his stardom has won an Oscar, and his celebrity is firmly established.
Citizenfour is a good film. Poitras captures the paranoid and frenzied early days of the Snowden leaks so well because she herself has long lived under the watchful eye of America’s surveillance apparatus.
Poitras made a documentary in 2006 called My Country, My Country which chronicles the U.S. occupation of Iraq. It landed her on a watch list, which means traveling through an airport will almost guarantee law enforcement will pull her aside, examine and question her. It’s happened more times than she can remember.
Citizenfour captures the essence of both Snowden and his revelations. The whistleblower sits before the camera, describing to Greenwald and others exactly how the NSA captures and stores vast amounts of information.
The average American knows Snowden revealed that the U.S. government watches … well, everyone, but few realize exactly what he turned over to journalists or why.
Do any of us really understand how PRISM works? Do most people who recognize Snowden even know what PRISM is? Do they why he used Lavabit or why air-gapped computers are important?
I don’t think they will, because all that information Snowden dropped was technical, complicated and unsexy. A rogue analyst, breaking from the pack, stealing government secrets and turning them over to journalists … now that’s sexy.
So tomorrow, and for years after, Americans will argue about Snowden. Some will call him a hero, and some will say he’s a traitor. We’ll tweet about him, write about him and post pithy comments to Facebook.
To fight the Empire is to be infected by its derangement,” Philip K. Dick wrote in the 1981 science-fiction novel VALIS. “Whoever defeats the Empire becomes the Empire; it proliferates like a virus, imposing its form on its enemies. Thereby it becomes its enemies.”
The whistleblower who didn’t want to be the story has become a counter-culture icon. The celebrity circus gobbled him up. At the same time, we’ll still allow various apps different permissions—giving Google, Verizon and others access to our current location and home address.
Sure, some of us will be more savvy than others, taking pains to encrypt as much as possible, but the majority of us can’t be bothered. We’ll be too busy talking about the Oscars.