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Citizenfour tells the story of how Edward Snowden became the whistleblower of the NSA. This Oscar-winning documentary unwinds at a slow, deliberate pace. It starts with Snowden contacting reporters anonymously, trying to find someone he could talk to with a safe connection. The first reporter he attempted to contact could not establish a safe enough connection for his requirements, so he moved on to Laura Poitras, the documentary maker.

Laura Poitras had made an earlier documentary about life in Iraq under U.S. occupation. As she began her second film about the trial of a man held at Guantanamo Bay, she was detained while crossing the U.S. border. She says she moved to Berlin to avoid having her cameras and files seized. Her efforts to document reality as well as her experience with the Department of Homeland Security led Snowden to believe that she would be willing to listen.

Snowden, then 29 years old, made big headlines as he leaked the enormity of the NSA’s surveillance of world leaders as well as average U.S. citizens. Viewers find a likeable enough young man who spends eight days in a room at the Mira hotel in Hong Kong as reporters ask him questions and verify what he is saying, writing up stories on different aspects of his information as they continue to interview him. One of the most fascinating aspects of watching the movie is watching recent history unfold.

At times the viewer sees signs of an idealistic young man who is horrified at what his own government is doing under the banner of protecting the homeland. There are also times viewers may wonder whether he has crossed over the line into mental illness, as his paranoia about the reach of surveillance leads him to do things like put a blanket over his head when he types his password into the computer. And I’m sure that after watching this documentary, most audiences are divided over whether he is a hero or a villain. I lean toward neither.  

For the most part, though, Snowden’s story seems credible. It is astonishing to think about how much information the U.S. (and other countries) collect, how government officials may have lied under testimony about what they are up to, how much money is spent on facilities to accomplish their surveillance, and how little privacy American citizens have left.

This documentary is an important one as we consider the freedoms that we enjoy and the potential for losing them.

On disc now. (Starz)

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