Review originally published in the California Tech November 8 2014.
Film review: Citizenfour moving, unsettling
Films frequently aim to evoke an emotional response. Some of the best thriller or horror films provoke a shocking visceral reaction that stays with the viewer for hours or days. Even in the depths of fear, disgust, or anxiety, it is possible to undermine suspension of disbelief by reminding oneself that the film is, afterall, fiction.
Recently, I saw the documentary thriller Citizenfour. At nearly two hours, the twisted, compact plot unwinds like tightly coiled clockwork. Telling the story of NSA leaker Edward Snowden, suspense builds organically, an inexorable tide of paranoia and suspicion that cannot be wished away. Fiction this is not.
The film was produced and shot by the award winning American journalist Laura Poitras, who, present from the very first, has thoroughly documented the entire saga. Some months after 'citizenfour' first made contact, a still-anonymous Snowden gave Poitras and another journalist, Glenn Greenwald, directions to meet in Hong Kong. Meeting in a hotel lobby, Greenwald and Poitras were shocked at their source's young age. As soon as Snowden's door closed, Poitras' camera began to roll.
For the next hour, the audience is confined with the principal protagonists in the tiny, claustrophobic hotel room. Scarcely larger than the bed it contains, overlooking a park in the central business district, we first meet Snowden explaining what he is doing and why. Eerily calm, his almost painfully skinny physique curled up on the bed while fielding endless questions from Greenwald and Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill, the film is a masterclass in closed-room mystery and paranoia.
Much has been written of and about Snowden, and this is not the place to rehash those discussions. Earning universal critical acclaim, the film has also offered Snowden critics an authentic and first-hand view of the vilified American, delivering deep insight into his knowledge and persona. Despite near certainty that his hours of freedom are likely in double digits, Snowden appears calm and patient, all the more impressive considering Greenwald and MacAskill's astounding level of ignorance when it came to technical matters.
As we now know, Snowden managed to escape Hong Kong only to become trapped in Russia. Nevertheless, with help from Wikileaks he has, unlike Chelsea Manning, retained his liberty and his ability to participate in the ongoing discussion that is tending ever so slightly away from his worst fears of technologically-enabled totalitarianism.
For the vast majority of Poitras' audience, my fellow theatergoers, the film is about politics, about trust in government, about oversight, and about the process of modern journalism. For the technically literate, however, I took away a different message. Communications technology does not just appear. It is created by engineers. Caltech students become leaders, innovators, inventors. Today, if there is any capability for ordinary people to avoid dragnet surveillance, it's because today's technical innovators, hobbyists, and developers have created some privacy enabling methods ex nihilo. Today, if we have any idea about illegal classified government activities, it's because technical people with access and conscience have leaked the information to relevant journalists. Scientists are usually trained to think of knowledge and technology as apolitical, but this is only ever the case under the most relaxed assumptions.
Competing in the Physics Olympiad way back in 2005, the then head of the program told the assembled competitors that knowledge, and physics in particular, can be used for evil and it can be used for good. The subtext was obvious. Half the people in the room were the best and brightest from China, Russia, Iran, Israel, the USA, and other warlike nations, and physicists build the best bombs. While explosives are an essential component of a peaceful deterrent force, he insisted we must use physics for good. Science contains the tools of both technological emancipation and technological slavery. When we create new knowledge, it must never be without a consideration for its possible uses.
I know few people who could calmly throw away their entire life for the sake of telling ordinary people about morally questionable actions done in their name and with their tax revenue, but Snowden was clearly one such person. For him, and for anyone else in a similar position, this is by far the most difficult decision that a person will ever face in their entire professional or personal life. It may come tomorrow or decades in the future but, once encountered, cannot be avoided or ignored. Citizenfour is a terrific primer for thinking about that ultimate decision and the sort of created world in which you want to live.