Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

Nov 27, 2014

Citizenfour (2014)

by Will Ross

There is typically little critical distinction between the reception of documentaries that are groundbreaking, thoughtful, and expertly crafted, and documentaries that are basically competent. Last year Leviathan and The Act of Killing swept into the open arms of critics as two firm representatives of the former. After that I hoped for a recalibration, for critics to stop permitting so much latitude in formal qualities and structure, to stop rewarding documentaries simply for taking on interesting subjects. Such has not been the case, as 2014 docs with admirable goals but unremarkable execution have been received like the second coming — Jodorowsky’s Dune, Life Itself, and now Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, which wastes no time announcing its middling presentation.

“This film is the third in a trilogy about America in the post-9/11 era,” the film’s opening title card informs us, and for all of its prominence, this piece of information does not significantly inform anything that follows in the next 113 minutes. For one thing, it’s never significant that this is part of a trilogy, nor that it’s the third part. For another, it could not be more redundant to characterize a film about Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks as “Post-9/11”. That sentence, ending that title card, presenting that information, is a small choice, but it’s the first chance the film has to frame itself, the sort of choice that separates accomplished storytelling from a strain for significance.

At bottom, Citizenfour is a parade of conversations about privacy. The film sticks to footage shot by Poitras and company as events unfolded, most effectively in the Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden met with Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and Ewen MacAskill to plan and execute the first of the leaks. It’s striking how composed he is — how confident in his principles, how accepting of his personal sacrifice. In one scene, a news report detailing imminent criminal charges against Snowden plays low on the soundtrack as he nonchalantly asks for advice on how to trim his beard. While Poitras is unequivocally on Snowden’s side (so am I) and may have had a stake in portraying him favourably, there’s no mistaking the genuine courage of his convictions on display, even as he unplugs phones and throws cloths over himself and his laptop to avoid the myriad of ways he could be spied upon. The strength of character on direct display is Citizenfour’s greatest asset, with the generally articulate phrasing of its subjects in a distant second.

The film itself is less articulate. As I said, Citizenfour is a series of conversations, in court rooms, hotels, meeting halls, news programs, etc., and while every conversation has something relevant to say about the issue — extreme government oversight, liberty, apathy, etc. — there’s not much linking them together here except for their chronological order, and a droning, irritating “this is a paranoid thriller!” electronic buzz (lifted from a Nine Inch Nails track where it actually works pretty well in context) providing a sketchy dramatic suture. Poitras also uses emails and instant-messaging sequences with Snowden as frequent interstitials, shown in stark white text on a black background. Sometimes it’s read by a chilled, monotonous voice; sometimes it’s silent, punctuated by keystrokes.

The problem with all these paranoid-thriller tropes is that the vast majority of the movie around them is simply not a thriller. It doesn’t have the intensity, the clarity of stakes, or especially the tight craftsmanship for that.

Poitras forgoes the flexibility and immediacy of handheld cameras typically suited to this sort of subject, instead mounting cameras on tripods for almost every scene. There are ways to do this well, but besides getting the multiple angles needed to cut and compress scenes with seamless Hollywood style (perhaps an inappropriate choice for a documentary that trumpets transparency), Poitras just doesn’t know how to use her tools. For a seasoned documentary filmmaker, her team is not very good with cameras: tripod shakes, jerky pans, focus issues, and poor framing plague the film so much that if there was a stylistic motivation for using tripods, it’s obscured under the poor craft on display.

That lack of focus extends to the editing. Though Citizenfour can identify interesting moments and conversations, it can’t seem to build them together into something more than the words that are spoken, can’t seem to give a sense that it’s building a thesis or a scope or a pattern of thought beyond what is transmitted on the surface of Snowden’s speeches. Not that that would be saying much — as the film progresses, there are more and more scenes where subjects repeat information we have already heard, with only small additions or a change in location distinguishing their content.

Citizenfour goes through a crisis of identity right before our eyes. It doesn't give us new information, and actually assumes we are familiar with its subject, so it’s not an introduction or explanation. Yet it’s too verbose, too laboured in its endless detailing of privacy breaches to function as thriller that the e-mail interstitials clearly want it to be. I sympathize with its intentions, but its form has little to praise. It is timely, has an interesting subject, and was bravely made, and that is not enough to make it a good film.


Marlene Detierro said...

Laura Poitras's Oscar-nominated documentary Citizenfour is proof that you can make an espionage thriller without car chases, bikini babes or martinis.

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