Profiling documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras for The New Yorker, George Packer writes of her latest film, “Citizenfour,” which tells the story of N.S.A. whistleblower Edward Snowden. Packer describes the documentary as a political thriller in three acts, with the second act chronicling Snowden’s time in Hong Kong. Over the course of eight days Poitras filmed Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room for twenty hours, and “the act proceeds chronologically through the eight days in the hotel room, taking up a full hour of the hundred-and-thirteen-minute film.”
We watch Snowden explain his background, his motivations, the nature and extent of N.S.A. eavesdropping, and his fears for the future. His control under immense pressure is unnerving. “I am more willing to risk imprisonment,” he says, “or any other negative outcome personally, than I am willing to risk the curtailment of my intellectual freedom and that of those around me, whom I care for equally as I do for myself.” The interviewer is Greenwald, and, soon enough, he and Snowden become defiant collaborators against power. Snowden, explaining why he plans to reveal his identity, speaks as if he were confronting a government heavy: “I’m not afraid of you. You’re not going to bully me into silence like you’ve done to everybody else.” Greenwald exclaims, “You’re coming out because you want to fucking come out!” (It’s a moment of inadvertent and unregistered humor, since Greenwald is gay.)
Snowden watches the global fallout from Greenwald’s stories on the TV in his hotel room. Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, whom he left behind in Hawaii without a word of explanation, writes him that police have come to question her. He is shaken, imagining her realization that “the person that you love, that you spent the decade with, may not be coming back.” He types something on his laptop—presumably, a reply to Mills—but Poitras, respecting his privacy, doesn’t move the camera to show its content. As the days go by, Snowden’s anxiety increases, and the room becomes claustrophobic. A fire alarm keeps going off—routine testing, he’s told. The bedside phone rings—“I’m afraid you have the wrong room,” he says, and hangs up. “Wall Street Journal,” he explains. His chin is stubbled and his hair won’t lie flat. He seems to be growing visibly paler, and the many stretches of silence last longer; Poitras’s camera stays close to him, at once exposing and protective. In such a small space, from which there’s no exit, the presence of a camera has a distorting effect, and it turns Snowden into a character in a play. Unlike Dr. Riyadh and his family, who went about their lives as Poitras trailed them, Snowden can never forget that he’s being filmed. There are few moments of self-betrayal.
“How do you feel?” we hear Poitras ask.
“What happens happens,” he says. “If I get arrested, I get arrested.”
In shots of him sitting on his unmade bed—white sheets and covers, white headboard, white bathrobe, white skin—Snowden seems like a figure in some obscure ritual, being readied for sacrifice. At one point, we hear his heart beating against a microphone. Still, he keeps speaking in the hyper-rational, oddly formal sentences of a computer techie. And then he’s gone.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons