Citizenfour - TV Review

'It's no surprise at all that Oliver Stone has already snapped up Snowden's story for the biopic treatment; his challenge will be making a dramatic film that equals the thrilling nature of Poitras' often nail-biting documentary'.

There's a moment within Citizenfour where a news reporter on the TV screen in Edward Snowden's Hong Kong hotel room describes Snowden as being like a character plucked directly from a John Le CarrĂ© novel. It's perhaps a pop culture reference point of convenience for the media, but there's no denying how remarkably apt it feels after watching Laura Poitras' documentary.

Poitras is clearly aware of the espionage-like quality of the events unfolding as she makes her film, allowing the majority of her documentary to play out like a real-life thriller and making Citizenfour all the stronger for it. There are times where you have to remind yourself that what Poitras is presenting actually happened, as so many episodes within Snowden's story could be taken directly from the likes of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or even one of the less camp Bond outings. Poitras' use of a Reznor and Ross soundtrack fits her film well, forging further tonal links with the psychological thrillers of David Fincher. It's no surprise at all that Oliver Stone has already snapped up Snowden's story for the biopic treatment; his challenge will be making a dramatic film that equals the thrilling nature of Poitras' often nail-biting documentary.

That said, taken as a piece of documentary filmmaking, Citizenfour is far from flawless. Poitras' film is regularly at its strongest when she allows events to simply unfold in front of her. The opening twenty minutes of her film feel somewhat erratic in their execution, jumping in non-chronological fashion between footage from trials, hearings and news reports that make it difficult to comfortably tune in to the film. At one point, Poitras reads messages sent between her and Snowden whilst the transcript appears on screen, only for the picture to then switch to another apparently important document as Poitras' voiceover continues. It's an information overload that signifies a director occasionally overwhelmed by the enormity of her film's subject matter.

Problematic also is Poitras' presentation of Snowden himself. Whilst the film settles during its lengthy middle act based around journalist Glenn Greenwald's interviews with Snowden confined to his hotel room in strategically-chosen Hong Kong, and whilst the information Snowden reveals is regularly jaw-dropping in nature, the man himself is not as compelling to watch as Poitras seems to believe. There are times where the director seems a little too worshipful of Snowden, unaware that having us watch him sit and read a computer screen we can't see or type things we can't read isn't all that compelling. Snowden himself is also an odd figure to work out, at times admirably devoted to telling the truths he feels compelled to reveal despite the personal ramifications, at others a little too sanctimonious to genuinely connect with.

Ultimately however, Poitras has one ace she can play from start to finish: Citizenfour is that rarest of films that captures a key moment in history as it happens. Everything that Poitras presents here feels undeniably important, documenting a period of time that you can't help but feel will be constantly referred back to in decades, maybe even centuries, to come. This is a film that demands to be watched, and its Best Documentary Oscar win last month only confirms that significance further.




By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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