The Academy Award for Best Documentary has had an interesting history. Most of the winners in recent memory have been either historically powerful and important, brazenly entertaining, or (more likely, to critics of the Academy) a political statement made squarely in the present moment, to send a message to those the documentary ultimately is about or covers. This most recent winner, Citizenfour, can make a damn good argument for being any and/or all of the above; thus, it was no real surprise that it ended up winning the prize, what with Hollywood being a bunch of left-wing nancies and all that jazz. Still, political debates aside, even with how important and powerful and brazen it was no doubt going to be, I was still hesitant to start Citizenfour, and I wasn’t really certain why. Maybe it was just by virtue of it being a documentary, or maybe the subject matter was still a little too fresh in my mind for a comprehensive and retrospective view on the subject. Or maybe I just thought it wouldn’t be an entertaining watch. Whatever the reason, I did feel ready eventually, and as soon as I did start the film, with its cut-in to a dark shot coupled with director Laura Poitras’ voice-over narration of the first email she received from the eponymous alias, I knew what I was ultimately going to be in for, and I actually got a little excited.
Where Citizenfour differs from most other historically important documentaries is that it doesn’t take place after the events in question, or rather, it doesn’t look back on what has transpired, even if what has transpired occurred merely a year or two ago. Citizenfour, which is the initial alias that whistleblower Edward Snowden used to contact Poitras about the NSA’s extensive surveillance programs used on any and all Americans (and most of the rest of the world as well), instead was filmed as the events were actually happening, by the people that were at the forefront of making these events happen: Snowden, Poitras, journalist Glenn Greenwald, and a tiny handful of other names and reporters who could be trusted to be brought into the hotel room where Snowden revealed his information (and later his identity) to the world, largely through Greenwald and Poitras’ reporting. Most of the film takes place in this or Poitras’ hotel room, and consists of the camera (operated mostly by Poitras) capturing the discussions and interviews taking place behind the reveal of what Snowden deems, quote, one of the biggest weapons for oppression in the history of mankind. It’s amazingly stark, not offering any spin or lean on what is going on, aside from an occasional tension-inducing tone from what sounds like a Swarmatron that serves as the film’s musical score. And really, that’s the way it should be, especially for a film covering events not just that recently happened, but as they were happening; Poitras knows the impact of the events taking place will be enough power to carry the viewer through the length of the film, and it’s a smart decision to make. The validity of her filmmaking techniques aside, it does leave me with admittedly very little to say about the film itself; it is a recording of a historical event, edited together by a documentarian with a knowledge and knack for storytelling, and almost nothing more than that. If that doesn’t sound entertaining to you, I’ll admit that that may very well be the case, but the sheer impact of what takes place during the film’s running time makes this enough of a required viewing for just about every American, and maybe even anyone in the world that this issue impacts, which, as Snowden and Greenwald try to make clear, is virtually everyone.
I really don’t know what to say to either encourage you or discourage you to watch this film. The only thing I can say, and that I am left to say, is this: You should watch this film. Not because it’s amazingly entertaining or gripping or any other positive adjective most casual moviegoers would like to hear about a film they should go see. No, Citizenfour is a unique experience in history, in documentaries, and in filmmaking in general, and it is one that, due to its subject matter and the time it takes place in, which is right now and today, you need to see just so you have a better handle on the world that you live in, for better or for worse. I’m not fully convinced that this will survive the culling of the List’s more recent entries in the years to come, but as long as this is still an issue of importance, which it will likely be for some time, it should stay and needs to stay. This isn’t an important lesson in the annals of history like WWII documentaries generally are; this is a window into the world of today, and every single citizen of this nation owes it to themselves and their fellow Americans to not close the shades on this particular pane of glass, but to step up to it and take a look through. If you don’t, you have no one to blame or to condemn or to point at but yourself.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10