Politics & Policy

The Paranoid and the Visionary

Edward Snowden in Citizenfour
Poitras’s Citizenfour is preachy; Resnais’s Life of Riley is complex, coherent, and profound.

Edward Snowden’s checking himself out in a mirror, pulling mousse through his hair (getting “ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille”), is the most revealing moment in Citizenfour, an official documentary coming-out party, designed to celebrate the informer and self-proclaimed whistleblower. This is political narcissism at its lowest and most fulsome.

After slowly building up to Snowden’s big-screen debut, Citizenfour mostly provides a platform for his political paranoia, not moral prescience. Snowden’s calm yet frightened, aggrieved tone determines director Laura Poitras’s process. She was a key member of Snowden’s advance team. It was Poitras’s footage that provided the first images of Snowden seen on CNN and other international media when his story about government snooping “broke.”

Citizenfour recounts only a portion of that story with an insider’s look at a seditious international counterculture: Berlin resident Poitras was contacted by Snowden, who knew her previous films on post-9/11 U.S. policies but mostly admired her notoriety for having been placed on a government watch list. (Poitras won a MacArthur “genius” grant and Pulitzer Prize for her work with Snowden.) Once 29-year-old Snowden left his job as an infrastructure analyst at the National Security Agency in Hawaii, he used the code name “Citizenfour” to elude government surveillance while he communicated with Poitras. These two, along with Brazil-based U.K. Guardian writer Glen Greenwald, planned Snowden’s own notorious leak of classified information.

Poitras portrays this secretive (conspiratorial?) meeting blithely — without concern about breaking any laws — as if she was directing a film-noir mystery. Citizenfour’s opening shot moves through a long, dark tunnel; no end in sight, just dim overhead traffic lights until the camera eventually emerges in Hong Kong, where Snowden hides out in a hotel. Poitras, her crew, and Greenwald are there practicing their propagandizing obfuscation.

With only a little skill but lots of dissembling, Poitras constructs a shakily ominous picture of a political confidence man (some would say criminal) who likes to see himself as both victim and hero. Poitras ignores the ethics of Snowden’s actions in order to provide moviegoers with a convenient man of the moment — endorsing him as an ideological dissident who turns his back on his government for the self-justifying reason that he disagreed with security procedures he was initially hired to help put into effect.

Citizenfour is not about Snowden’s change of heart (if such ever occurred) and not an examination of his untroubled disloyalty. Poitras’s stylized presentation makes Snowden’s covert activities accord with the atmosphere of annoyance and resentment — the same liberal smugness that ruined Brian De Palma’s Redacted. This popular distrust appeals to the disenchantment of those who disagree with the policies of the Department of Homeland Security following 9/11. Trouble is, Poitras foments anxiety — and political suspicion — as if cynicism itself were proof of righteousness. Citizenfour’s slippery narrative contributes to the period’s paranoia; it’s part of the way contemporary documentary makers continue to misuse the tools of journalism. There’s little investigation and reporting. Despite how Citizenfour is praised (as in Variety‘s mindless cheerleading, seditious review), this is nothing more than an EPK (electronic press kit), filling in the background of a political celebrity.

Citizenfour’s overly dramatized style recalls the 1987 film The Thin Blue Line, which eschewed journalistic ethics, using similar corrupt, melodramatic devices (infectious music, chic white-on-black graphics, gotcha drama and sentimentality) to popularize the form. Small coincidence that Citizenfour, like The Thin Blue Line, is also distributed by Harvey Weinstein, who, in addition to sponsoring several Michael Moore films, has become a leading patron of politically slanted docs.

Weinstein and executive producer Steven Soderbergh (who won an Oscar for Traffic and made the George Clooney anti-capitalist Ocean’s Eleven franchise films as well as the two-part, five-hour biopic Che, heroizing Che Guevara) are also Hollywood political players who establish a context of casual, rebellious skepticism. Lazy polemicists nostalgic for the ’60s ethic of “free speech,” they trash that virtue by mistaking Snowden-Poitras-Greeenwald’s querulous dispositions for a democratic reflex, a new, Hollywood form of “citizenship.”

Snowden’s eventual defection to Russia proves an ideal model for trendy treachery: His self-aggrandizing Gen-X betrayal as lowly “Citizenfour” makes him the spy who came in from privilege.

*  *  *

“I’m not the story here,” Snowden declares. But Poitras would have to disagree. Snowden’s self-serving, defensive statements determined her one-sided, biased flattery. Yet Poitras doesn‘t pursue that aspect of the story. Her agenda — along with Greenwald’s — is to oppose the U.S. government by portraying it as an immoral force. They pretend to expose its “secrets that impose a threat on democracy.”

Snowden decries “state power against the people’s ability to meaningfully oppose that power.” But his ire is essentially geek fanaticism and child-of-’60s zeal. He’s perturbed that “they are building the greatest weapon of oppression in the history of man.” Whoever “they“ is, Snowden says “in the history of man” a lot — to measure his alarm and his audacity; the phrase is his password to Benedict Arnold, the Rosenbergs, and Daniel Ellsberg‘s martyrdom.

Citizenfour’s digital-age fears connect with the fashionable anti-Americanism of post-9/11 and Occupy technological elites. Poitras includes brief scenes of Occupy security adviser Jack Applebaum inciting his followers, who sit in shadowy spaces like members of the 1940s French underground, eager to agitate. That’s Poitras’s fantasy. Clearly, the old patriotic virtues of honor, respect, duty, and loyalty are as passé to her, Snowden, and Greenwald as the draft.

#page#Poitras ignores how cohort Greenwald crosses the line of journalistic impartiality. Speaking on a panel in Brazil (where he lives), Greenwald declares that “the possibility to organize is limited if we don’t have privacy.” This concern to “organize” makes one ask: Are Greenwald and Poitras against capitalism? Or is it that these expat Americans think sedition is okay for rich, empowered media elites?

As Snowden’s publicist, Greenwald’s tasks include “introducing you [to the public] in an incremental way. We are going to be doing the government’s work for them.” Apparently, “journalist” Greenwald doesn’t believe he works for Truth. He’s already biased — and additionally prejudiced by the flattery of being in Snowden’s confidence and enjoying his implied solidarity.

Responding to Greenwald’s scheme, Snowden beams, “I think that’s brilliant! It’s inverting the model! It’s the ultimate standing up to them!” That vague “them” matches the unrevealed sources who finance Snowden’s privacy and lodging. When crucial information is inconvenient, Poitras lets it slide. Her dereliction of journalistic duty and fealty to a subversive agenda makes this film unacceptable.

Gullible viewers may be touched by Snowden’s grandstanding (“I’m more willing to risk imprisonment than risk curtailment of my intellectual freedom”), but it lends empty palaver to a pretend argument about an overstepping government. Snowden’s professed desire to “contribute to the good of others” is laughable — especially when we see shots of him and fiancée Lindsay at their dacha in Moscow.

All this is factitious and patronizing. It manipulates non-rigorous moviegoing habits. Without the fun clarity of the military testimonies in Costa Gavras’s Z or the readable, expressive faces of courtroom participants in Francesco Rosi’s Hands across the City, you cannot fairly assess Poitras’s prevarication. It’s nearly impossible to catalog ideas while watching a film like this. It’s unlike reading in that you’re easily subject to emotional, kinetic sway. Thankfully, Citizenfour steadily becomes unconvincing and dull in its attempts to make a political star. Clear-spoken, with the educated voice of white American bureaucracy, Snowden is a figure of his times: Canoodling with CNN’s Piers Morgan (“That’s not freedom, is it? Congratulations on exposing what is, again, a true scandal”), Snowden resembles an anonymous white-collar criminal. Shots of his myopic stare without eyeglasses is accusatory — a brat looking into the camera as if to guilt us. Poitras deifies Snowden as he holds court in bed like John and Yoko back in the ’60s.

This film isn’t about democracy but about a privileged trio’s paranoid refusal to be trustworthy while commandeering the national conversation. But it doesn’t work. When Snowden boasts, “I don’t care what they do. I’m not afraid,” he’s lying; that’s why he ran. And Poitras is not a journalist or documentarian; she’s an accessory, a conspirator. It used to be an accepted truism that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” but Poitras favors Occupy’s Applebaum, sounding anarchistic: “What we once called liberty and freedom, we call privacy. . . . Surveillance is control.” That may be the oddest stance ever supported by a documentary maker.

It is an exquisite test of American cultural values that Snowden confuses politicians and film lovers alike. After such controversies as the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Bush v. Gore, and the Iraq War, our national life has reached a stage where political preferences overrun principles and political uncertainties twist our aesthetics. Citizenfour fails the test by distorting historical facts and mixing up genres.

We don’t need to decide if Snowden’s actions were excusable or even comprehensible but if they were criminal. If the Left turns its back on morality in order to get what it wants, it has become Machiavellian. If, as a filmmaker, Poitras identifies with Snowden’s perorations because she is searching for a moral language (as honest artists do) rather than a mere political rationale, she has not found it in simply blaming the government. This petulance is an embarrassing, uninformed, legacy of the youth rebellion of the ’60s.

*  *  *

The late Alain Resnais always tested whether our viewing habits were dull or adventurous — right up to the end. His final film Life of Riley is the best new movie to see this week. Resnais adapts Alan Ayckborn’s British stage farce in pursuit of cinematic essence. Three amorous couples (who are also theater actors) contemplate the impact of an off-screen character – Riley — on their lives. Heady commotion allows Resnais to investigate different states of consciousness and performance as in his previous film, the exquisite You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet. But he also contemplates mortality (as in his French title Aimer, boire et chante, or Love, Drink and Sing).

Mortality is Resnais’s main topic (not time, as most critics claim), and the French Institute/Alliance Française’s Resnais retrospective proves it with the October 28 screening of his Providence (1977) — an unnerving and very moving early benediction. Life of Riley has a similar effect, starting with Resnais’s smooth-paced landscapes that draw viewers into his abstract vision. Those fooled by Wes Anderson’s childish Grand Budapest Hotel will be astounded by Resnais’s complex, coherent, and profound playfulness. “Style is feeling in its most elegant and economical expression,” a Resnais character says, and Life of Riley’s shifting visual motifs give expression to love, art, and life. Resnais’s gift to cinema was to let audiences see and feel Thought.

— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Onlineand received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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