Any crime that shows a person to be a degenerate and a burden on the species should warrant the death penalty. I think if you get arrested for DUI twice, you should be killed; why should you, someone who is clearly a danger to people around you, be allowed to exist?
Morality. Where would the world be without those who apply it so well . . .
The east and the west are mine, the north and the south are mine. All seems beautiful to me.
— Walt Whitman
Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s documentary about Edward Snowden, premiered to a sold-out audience at the New York Film Festival on October 10. The film was not originally part of the festival lineup, its inclusion only announced less than a month prior. The premiere understandably generated an overwhelming amount of anticipation, promising a personal look at the enigmatic figure who leaked a trove of classified NSA documents that expose a horrifyingly massive, US-run surveillance program directed at both US and global citizens and world leaders. Snowden is currently wanted by the US government for treason and continues to live in Russia, which has granted him temporary asylum.
Citizenfour is the third film in Poitras’s documentary trilogy about the post–September 11th world. My Country, My Country (2005) captures the chaos in Iraq leading up to that year’s elections, focusing on a Sunni doctor who’s running for political office. The Oath (2010), one of the most underrated documentaries of the past five years, follows Abu Jandal, a winningly charismatic Yemeni taxi driver who also happens to be a former member of Al Qaeda, and for a time Osama Bin Laden’s bodyguard. The Oath and Citizenfour are philosophically two-of-a-kind — meditations on individual responsibility amid fundamentalism, violence, and abuses of power. Both present nuanced portraits of characters whose political sympathies do not split along traditional lines.
Although often described as such, Citizenfour is not truly a piece of political reporting. After all, the revelations of NSA spying detailed in the film happened months before. Nor is the film, although it perhaps aspires to be, much of a deep character study. We learn little of the complexity of Snowden’s psyche — he presents a clear, consistent motive of political principle to his interviewers, and reveals little about himself beyond his concern with the questions at hand. Rather, what Citizenfour captures is the nail-biting suspense of a short period of time in which a man sacrifices himself for his political ideals.
What may actually bother these critics most is Snowden’s singled-mindedness. He’s so sure of his convictions and in possession of such a clear sense of personal responsibility that he colors a shocking number of people in a comparatively dark moral light: anyone with security privileges at the NSA; many members of congress; the President; anyone else who was aware of the NSA’s data collection programs and did nothing. Citizenfour shows that Snowden has absolute faith in his own principles. He repeats that he doesn’t want to become the focus of attention — the leaks themselves should have the news spotlight. He explains the information he has, but makes clear that he wants Poitras and Greenwald to decide what to reveal and when to publish it. Generally, he comes across as smart, extremely principled, and unassuming. It’s a convincing portrait.