Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ new feature-length documentary about National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, which is screening tonight as part of the London Film Festival, is as engaging a film as you can imagine set in a hotel room in which everyone keeps their clothes on.
And it’s important too – serving as a blow-by-blow account of what took place in June 2013, when Snowden decided to make an epic breach of US national security protocol in the name of freedom and at stupendous personal cost.
1 | Some Serious John le Carré Shiz Went Down
When you’re meeting a whistleblower for the first time who has information that might change the very fabric of society and you don’t know who he is or what he looks like, you hope you’ll be told to identify him by the fact that he will be sitting in a Far Eastern hotel lobby playing with a Rubik’s cube and will then conduct a scripted conversation about the hotel restaurant, which will indicate you were safe to proceed. All of which happened, and sounds, we have to admit it, kinda cool.
2 | Edward Snowden’s Better Looking Than You Think
You’ve probably seen the first clips Poitras filmed of journalist Glenn Greenwald’s interviews with Snowden in The Mira hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui that went up on The Guardian in June last year, where he was wearing a drab grey shirt and the kind of glasses a Norwegian architect might wear when he’s accidentally sat on his main pair. But in the full-length film you get a better look at him and, you know, it looks like Snowden’s been working out. Plus his jeans aren’t that bad. Needless to say we were shocked, but maybe the casting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Oliver Stone’s movie version isn’t as nutso as we first thought.
3 | But He’s Still A Super-Nerd
No one gets to Snowden’s level – system administrator for Booz Allen Hamilton, contracted to the NSA – without a serious amount of technical know-how, and let’s there’s definitely a slight twinkle in his eye as he describes the complexities of the systems to which he had access and the journalists interviewing him (Greenwald is joined by The Guardian’s defence and intelligence correspondent Ewen MacAskill) do their best to convince him they know exactly what he’s talking about. At one point he spots a minor hardware error committed by one of them and gives the kind of knowing, slightly smug, laugh that Craig from IT probably gave you this morning.
4 | Your Desk Phone Is Not Your Friend
At one point the phone in Snowden’s hotel room rings. Everyone looks nervous. It turns out it’s just the front desk asking how he enjoyed his dinner (he ate some of it and he’ll have the rest later, thanks for asking), but it still gets promptly unplugged. As Snowden tells his interlocutors, you can be listened to in all kinds of ways, including through a VoIP phone, which he says can be hotwired remotely so that it picks up your speech – even when the receiver’s down. We’ve been giving ours evils ever since.
5 | Britain Is The Surveillance King
The focus of the film is very much on the scope of the NSA’s surveillance in the US, where metadata about millions of citizens is processed every day in the name of terrorism prevention, but Snowden mentions that when it comes to the depth of probing, GCHQ has got the NSA licked. According to him, the UK’s Tempura programme – sorry, Tempora (forgive us, it’s lunchtime) – collects not only metadata but also content; that is, not only people’s movements and communication connections, but also what they’re actually saying. Is it possible to feel a swell of pride and a shiver of terror at the same time?
6 | There’s Another Whistleblower Out There
At the end of the film, Greenwald goes to visit Snowden in Moscow, where he has been living on a three-year residency permit since late June 2013, and mentions that a new possible source has made contact. In a series of hastily scribbled notes, Greenwald gives some indication of the kind of information the new whistleblower is prepared to unveil, and Snowden seems duly impressed, perhaps even a little cowed, given that the new guy (or girl) appears to be higher up the rankings than he was. Stay tuned on that one.
7 | He’s Totally Still Got A Girlfriend
If your other half has ever threatened to leave you for leaving the toilet seat up one too many times, or not putting your dirty pants in the laundry basket (apparently turning them inside-out for another wear is not OK), then imagine what she’d say if you bailed on her while she was on holiday and went into hiding while you betrayed the good work/exposed the sinister doings of the world’s biggest superpower? We can only assume Lindsay Mills, Snowden’s partner of 10 years, is a forgiving type as at the end of the film we see them cooking dinner together in a house somewhere in Moscow, where she has now joined him. Actually she’s cooking, and he’s kind of milling around looking useless. Ah, home sweet home.
Citizenfour premieres at the BFI London Film Festival tonight and will be simultaneously shown in over 50 cinemas nationwide, before going on general release on 31 October