Citizenfour: all it's cracked up to be and more

I've been travelling continuously since September, and that means that despite my best efforts, I haven't been able to see Citizenfour, Laura Poitras's storied Edward Snowden documentary — until last night.

2014 was my busiest year ever. I've had so few nights at home, and even fewer with my wife, and even fewer when one or both of us weren't jet-lagged to the point of uselessness. Last night, New Year's Eve, we finally got a night out together with both of us rested and carefree, and after an excellent dinner and some drinks, we walked past a theater that was playing Citizenfour and decided on impulse that we'd both love to spend this rare evening together watching a great movie.

Boy, did we make the right decision! Of course, I'm very familiar with the Snowden story — I've been reporting it, and I know many of the principles in the story well. But even though I knew the story backwards and forwards, and even though I've (jealously!) read tons of reviews of Citizenfour, I still found myself riveted by the movie.

Poitras's documentary is a perfect balance of narrative, human story, technical detail, politics, and ideology. Her incredible access to the entire story from the very beginning — she was the first journalist whom Snowden successfully contacted — along with her prodigious filmmaking skill, means that the story of surveillance, leaks, authoritarianism, Snowden-the-man, Snowden-the-phenomenon, and the second coming of privacy oriented crypto tools is told with all the taut virtuosity of a summer blockbuster — but this one is real.

Most interesting to me was the portrait that emerges of Snowden himself. He's so wary of being turned into a symbol, of the media's propensity to make stories about politics and surveillance into stories about personalities. At the same time, you could hardly ask for a more articulate spokesperson for the cause of disclosure of the mass spying programs, and for allowing people to live their lives without the prying eyes of the state everywhere. Before he defected to the public, Snowden had a reputation for constantly challenging his co-workers and superiors about the ethics of their work, and in the movie, you can hear the echoes of those arguments — and of the arguments he must have had with himself all along — in his articulate, plain-spoken description of the reasons for his actions.

I walked out of that movie practically pogoing with delight and renewed sense of purpose. Poitras and Snowden's story could be a counsel of despair, the cheap cynicism of savvying, but it's not. It's a call to arms, a call for debate, a call for the state to serve its public, not rule it. It was one of my best New Year's Eves ever.

And yes, I cheered when I saw this: