'Citizenfour': A Paranoid Conspiracy Documentary About Edward Snowden Laura Poitras' new film isn't artfully shaped like her other documentaries. But she captures scenes as history is being made — and it will make you look both ways when you're on the street.
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'Citizenfour': A Paranoid Conspiracy Documentary About Edward Snowden

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'Citizenfour': A Paranoid Conspiracy Documentary About Edward Snowden

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'Citizenfour': A Paranoid Conspiracy Documentary About Edward Snowden

'Citizenfour': A Paranoid Conspiracy Documentary About Edward Snowden

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Laura Poitras' new film isn't artfully shaped like her other documentaries. But she captures scenes as history is being made — and it will make you look both ways when you're on the street.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The documentary "Citizenfour" shows us what it was like when Edward Snowden handed over classified NSA documents to journalist Glenn Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras in Hong Kong, where Snowden was hiding and revealed his identity to them. Poitras spent a lot of time behind the camera, filming Snowden in Hong Kong - including his interviews with Greenwald. Film critic David Edelstein has the review of Poitras's documentary "Citizenfour."

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Laura Poitras's Edward Snowden documentary "Citizenfour" isn't artfully shaped the way her other films are. It seems like a rough draft. There are a lot of questions about Snowden left hanging. She's part of the story. And of course, that story isn't finished by a long shot. For all that, though, it's one of the scariest paranoid conspiracy thrillers I've ever seen. I looked both ways when I hit the street.

Poitras opens with a blurry image inside a tunnel from a moving car, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's music buzzing ominously like communication wires. She relays how ever since she began filming stories about what she terms government abuses, she's been detained every time she enters the U.S. and that she now lives in Berlin. Then she explains how a person calling him or herself Citizenfour contacted her via computer to say he or she had something astounding to reveal. She reads aloud from one of the messages.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CITIZENFOUR")

LAURA POITRAS: You asked why I picked you. I didn't; you did. The surveillance you've experienced means you've been selected, a term which will mean more to you as you learn about how the modern SIGINT system works. For now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, article you write, site you visit, subject line you type and packet you route is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited, but whose safeguards are not. Your victimization by the NSA system means that you are well aware of the threat that unrestricted, secret police pose for democracies. This is a story few but you can tell.

EDELSTEIN: Poitras serves up shots of monitors scrolling data plucked from Americans' emails and huge, futuristic, otherworldly government surveillance centers in the United States and the United Kingdom - one in the process of being built. A former National Security meta-data collector named William Binney details the ways in which the NSA intercepts hundreds of millions of communications from ordinary Americans and lies about it.

There's the now-familiar clip of the NSA head General James Clapper assuring a congressional committee, under oath, that the NSA does not collect data on millions of Americans, not wittingly, he adds.

And then, there's suddenly Snowden, in a room high up in a blankly modern Hong Kong hotel, talking to Poitras and reporter Glenn Greenwald, then working for the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper. At this point, no one knew Snowden's name or that he was an employee of management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton on loan to the NSA. His classified documents had not been released. Snowden tells Greenwald he's giving The Guardian and other papers everything he has - not even holding back material that could endanger agents because, he says, he doesn't want to be the person to make the judgment on what to release.

Poitras doesn't probe that. Nor does she or Greenwald probe the reasons Snowden turned whistleblower, which are, on evidence, more complex than his horror of unchecked government surveillance. Those hotel scenes go on very long, and Greenwald is not a lively interrogator. What holds us is that we are there right in the room, as history is being made, with the actual guy, soon to be notorious. Finally, Poitras cuts to editors at The Guardian getting ready for the momentous release, then Snowden, watching CNN break the news.

Poitras is very protective of her subject. She doesn't show Snowden a few days later praising Hong Kong's, quote, "spirited commitment to free speech and the right of public dissent," which would be cringe-worthy in light of the current crackdown on Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrators. "Citizenfour" maintains that more than a million Americans not suspected of terrorism are being watched. It ends with a teasing scene - a year after the main events, in Russia, where Snowden now lives. Greenwald informs him, via scribbled notes the camera doesn't show, of another high-up whistleblower on the horizon. Snowden's eyebrows go up. One word is floated in a peek-a-boo shot of a piece of paper - POTUS. Stay tuned.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

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