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31st October 2014, 17:12
CitizenFour (15)

Verdict: Whistle-blowing documentary


This is the third of Laura Poitrasís trilogy of documentaries about the U.S. in a post 9/11 world and, by sheer good luck, the Edward Snowden brouhaha erupted not only while she was making it, but live in front of her camera.

The result is a film that unfolds like a rather wordy John le Carre thriller, hopping between London, Berlin, Rio, Moscow and Hong Kong.

Poitras had been working for two years on a film about U.S. government surveillance when the arch whistleblower Snowden contacted her, using the alias CitizenFour.

We meet him here just as Poitras and investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald do, in a room in a Hong Kong hotel. He explains who he is and what his motivations are, at least when Greenwald, who is exceedingly fond of the sound of his own voice, allows him centre-stage.

Snowden comes across as something of a nerd, hopelessly idealistic, but also articulate and sincere, not creepily manipulative like WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who pops up briefly.

He gives a persuasive account of his reasons for revealing the apparent extent of U.S.-sponsored surveillance, but what the film lacks is balance.

It is thoroughly, unashamedly partisan in its presentation of the former National Security Agency systems analyst as a force for universal good.

And as the worldís media close in on him, we have a front-row seat. It feels like a privilege, but an uncomfortable one, because here is a man whose life is changing irreversibly before our eyes.

Eventually, his new life takes him to Moscow, where we see him through his kitchen window, living under the patronage of Vladimir Putin.

Unlike Groucho Marx, who didnít want to join a club that would have him as a member, he has wound up, the anti-surveillance cheerleader, being filmed through a window in Putinís Russia.

Thatís the point at which we have to ask ourselves, even if Poitras doesnít, whether it was all worth it.