Every now and then there is a documentary that feels like a more important piece of fabric to how we perceive society. Super Size Me altered our views on fast food. An Inconvenient Truth made us reconsider global warming. Now, with director Lauren Poitras' Citizenfour, a more pressing matter that affects us all has come forward: privacy. Over the course of the Oscar winning documentary, the film explores Edward Snowden's life as he unleashes news to the public about the N.S.A. and sacrifices his freedom in the process. The results may be known, but the back story is staggering.
Completing a trilogy of documentaries about post-9-11 America, Poitras decided to tackle this subject when an anonymous person going by the handle "citizenfour" wrote her with news of the government spying on its citizens. As the story unfolds, it unveils the dangers of this notion and even explains in clinical detail what spying would do. This includes hacking into very personal data with no more than credit card and password information. In fact, it almost plays cinematically that Snowden isn't actually involved until 20 or so minutes in after exposition has been given by professionals; a concept that is later reverberated in the closing half when the matters get out of hand.
What makes it most striking is not the visual or narrative style. It is simply an execution of events that play out as Snowden sits in a hotel room and unveils his knowledge. It is shocking in the realities and the occasional hint of nervousness in his personality adds a wavering quality to how modern rebels are treated. His time in the story is considerably brief, only serving to unveil important details. However, his influence is felt like a virus internationally as the concerns become more and more recognized in global governments. The fact that it manages to have access to these moments adds a timeless touch to everything.
Citizenfour serves as a thesis about society. It explores the differentiation between the use of words privacy and freedom. It raises a lot of questions as the answers continue to unveil themselves. It isn't propaganda meant to spark fear. It is reality meant to incite thought and potential change. It feels important because it doesn't take an easy road to getting its answers. By the end, Snowden is a weathered man forced to communicate by paper in fear of being wiretapped. His eyes are dark. The only thing really keeping him going is the will that he has made a difference, which he has.
While the documentary has yet to take on a life on par with the aforementioned titles, it is one that feels like a time capsule of the era. More than an information piece, it encapsulates a subject that will be studied with hope of understanding for decades to come. Much like director Jafar Panahi's This Is Not a Film, it explores freedom in minimalist ways that speak volumes. As seen in the film, it actually changed the world, and that alone is evidence of why this is so much more than a paranoia tale. It is a story on what freedom means in the 21st century and how we as a nation should feel about that.