Savant Blu-ray Review
2014 / Color / 2:39 widescreen / 113 min. / Street Date August 25, 2015 /
Starring Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Julian Assange, Laura Potras, Marcel Rosenbach, Julian Borger.
Cinematography Kirsten Johnson, Trevor Paglen, Laura Poitras, Katy Scoggin
Film Editor Mathilde Bonnefoy
Produced by Mathilde Bonnefoy, Laura Poitras, Dirk Wilutzky
Directed by Laura Poitras
What do you say when a movie plays like a big wake-up call? Last year’s Oscar winner for documentaries Citizenfour is a movie operating way out on a limb, in terms of legalities. We keep saying that the free speech liberties of individuals and the press are sacred in our society, yet modern technology has blurred all the lines. That, and the growing secret security departments of our government have grown so much, and been given so many go-aheads to do things normally forbidden by law, that the definition of civil liberties is in question.
Although I feel competent in describing Citizenfour and explaining why it comes off as sincere and credible, its subject is overwhelming. When is a whistleblower a traitor, and when is he a patriot? The press in general and certainly the present administration have skipped no opportunity to paint NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden as a traitor crippling America’s ability to defend itself. I’ve seen the Vice President on the news, furious that Snowden’s leaked information could put our entire intelligence gathering network — agents, military men, foreign informants — at risk.
Snowden sees it differently, and so does producer Laura Poitras, who had already made critical documentaries about Guantanamo and the Iraq War. When Snowden decided to go public with his information he contacted Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald. Because of their ‘activities’ informing the public of how the intelligence community now works, Poitras and Greenwald were already under heavy scrutiny, detained in airports when they entering and leaving the country, etc. Another ‘technical’ whistleblower named William Binney had worked for the NSA for decades, devising software to collect and analyze data on foreigners. He came out of retirement to tell the world that the NSA is now aiming the systems he built to the job of collecting data on every U.S. citizen. That’s every phone call, every Email, every monetary transaction. The government justifications, we’re told, are lies. We’re all ‘persons of interest’; there is no such thing as privacy. As Binney says, the East German Stasi, the KGB or the Gestapo would have loved to possess such a system.
Edward Snowden decided to release classified information diverted from secret files to prove that he was serious and that Americans were unaware of the extent of the snooping. Citizenfour shows him holed up in a Hong Kong hotel, holding careful meetings with Glenn Greenwald and another reporter, Ewan MacAskill ,while Poitras’ camera records the decision to go public. Snowden knew that he’d immediately become a wanted man. He chose Hong Kong because it’s not under official or complicit U.S. control – he can travel to other countries from there. What we see is a guy, 30 years old, sitting unshaven on a hotel bed, with his laptop as his only prop. We hear talk about the precautions he’s used to communicate with Poitras and Greenwald, and also the legal steps they’ve taken to avoid being subject to arrest as co-conspirators.
We see a lot of news reaction, with Greenglass going on camera to explain what’s going on. The government is slow to react. Snowden isn’t called a fraud or a liar. He comes off as sincere and determined, and thoroughly convinced that he’s doing the right thing. Mostly, he seems very smart – he’s doing this totally on his own, one man against a huge security monolith. In effect, he’s making himself a complete ‘man without a country.’ The American intelligence agency would surely prefer him locked up and unable to communicate with anybody. We also wonder if they would kill him if they could; our chief executives now reserve the right to order targeted individual killings. When first we heard about Snowden, I imagined him as some kind of nerd megalomaniac, an opportunist of some stripe. That doesn’t seem to be the case. Snowden gave up a pretty good life in Hawaii, with a salary from an NSA contractor. He repeatedly explains that he organized the document leaks in a way to make the story not about him, but to reveal what our government is up to.
At one point an alarm bell in the Hong Kong hotel rings, and the little group is concerned that an arrest may be imminent. There was always the fear that the local police would cooperate with the U.S. officials. Snowden does not seem to be paranoid. Most of us would be expecting a black ops team to drop on the roof, burst in and throw a black bag over our head. We’d be spirited off to some secret prison, never to be seen again.
Snowden and his leaks hit the press with the impact he wanted, but the story does not become, ‘what are we going to do about the secret spying,’ but instead, ‘where will Snowden end up?’ Greenwald is shown traveling to Brazil, to address a large audience (in excellent Portuguese) about what the NSA disclosures mean. Sure, the disclosures hurt our ‘prestige’ around the world. But what they prove is that our government spy agencies are using the information they gather to help American corporations prevail the business playing field overseas. It isn’t about war and treaties and armies, but the economic domination of the globe.
We see a bit of news showing the reaction in Germany, where it comes out that the NSA has been systematically tapping the phone calls and Emails of Chancellor Angela Merkel. That certainly became a problem. Snowden’s disclosures put out the message that the U.S. was not to be trusted, even when dealing with its closest allies.
The docu can’t tie things together because what will happen to Edward Snowden is yet to be determined. Near the end Snowden seems happy to hear that someone else has come out with disclosures, that he may have started a larger movement. I don’t think that has happened in any big way. We always knew that every country had spies, but we didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, that we were already neck deep in a surveillance state much more pernicious than anything in paranoid literature. Our news media prefers to give us alarmist, outraged reports of Chinese ‘cyber attacks’ on the U.S.. The importance of Citizenfour is that we now must understand that the U.S. is waging a constant cyber war against everyone, including its own citizens.
Citizenfour is HD cam footage of a high quality, without narration, tricks or embellishments. It covers a finite time period around when the story breaks, providing a record of what happened. The entire show is riveting, from beginning to end. Seeing that Edward Snowden is no Christopher Boyce or Julius Rosenberg makes a big difference. He’s not exercising a grudge or a vendetta. Ideology and monetary gain seem to have nothing to do with his decision, and he’s neither a glory hog nor a nut case. He may become one of the nation’s first great heroes of the millennial century… depending how the political pendulum swings, of course. 1
Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray of Citizenfour is a fine-looking encoding with excellent image and color. No problems there, whatsoever. We do cut away frequently from Snowden’s hotel room, to the testimony of other whistleblowers, and that of NSA officials that deny doing everything they’re accused of, usually by redefining the questions. I now see why some critics call the present administration the least transparent of any in history.
The extras appear to be produced by The New York Times. An illuminating TV discussion is held between Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, with David Carr moderating and Edward Snowden present by web video. It’s an hour in duration; Snowden is allowed to make a few position speeches to the audience. A film society Q&A with Poitras and Dennis Lim follows. Then comes a short film by Laura Poitras, The Program, which shows the construction in Utah of an enormous NSA data collection facility, which William Binney says will be used to store every bit of web communication, allowing our secret security government to study us in nearly unimaginable detail. For his efforts, Binney has been under constant government scrutiny, to the extent of having his home raided, and guns pushed in his face. Is this what the radical conservatives are so paranoid about? 2
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: deleted scenes, NYT talk with Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden, David Carr; Dennis Lim and Laura Poitras Q&A; short opinion docu The Program by Laura Poitras
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 14, 2015
1. Could Snowden still be a fraud? I don’t think so. He personally has very little to gain by doing all this, and indeed has already forfeited much. Snowden’s sincerity is similar to that of one of those Vietnamese monks that, to make a political or religious statement, burned himself alive: the monk’s ideas may be wrong, but you can bet your soul that whatever reason he gave for burning himself, he’s not lying.
2. What did you say on Facebook, or Email or message to your friends last week? Any potentially ‘unpopular’ opinions? Anything that could be used against you? Anything else you might not want made public, just for privacy’s sake? I’d like to think that, should some general or politician or corporate CEO say, ‘get me everything we know on Glenn Erickson,’ that the results would just bore them. At least I hope so. Citizenfour makes us think about these issues.