Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Citizenfour [2014]

MPAA (R)  ChicagoTribune (3 1/2 Stars)  RogerEbert.com (4 Stars)  AVClub (A-)  Fr. Dennis (4+ Stars)

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RogerEbert.com (G. Cheshire) review
AVClub (D. Ehrlich) review  

Citizenfour [2014] (directed by Laura Poitras [IMDb]) is almost the very definition a landmark documentary.  After all, for about half the film we watch former NSA contractor Edward Snowden actually being interviewed / debriefed by the American, Berlin-residing director Laura Poitras [IMDb] as well as the The Guardian's journalists, the American, Rio de Janeiro-residing Glenn Greenwald [IMDb] and British, UK-residing Ewen MacAskill [IMDb] over the span of a week to ten days in a Hong Kong hotel room.

(Indeed a part of the simultaneously fascinating and disturbing sub-text of the story is the environment in which we find ourselves living in: Here are two two of the most significant investigative reporters of our time, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, and _both_ have come to feel more comfortable doing their investigative work _abroad_ rather than "from home").

The film begins with the director reading via voice-over the initial e-mails she received, encrypted from an anonymous source, by the name of "citizenfour" promising an unprecedented story about the mind-bending extent of the U.S. NSA's post-9/11 electronic surveillance programs. Ms. Poitras had already been working on a documentary about American intelligence's post-9/11 surveillance of dissenters.  Her project was inspired in part because in the aftermath of the release of her Bush-era documentary, My Country, My Country [2006] about post-Iraq War Iraq, she was put on a "U.S. government watch list" that made travel so hard for her to and about the U.S. that she finally decided to pack-up and move to Berlin (Berlin?  Kinda ironic / iconic, huh...?)

Some of the footage from her unfinished documentary on the monitoring of dissent in the U.S. is presented in the first half hour of the film to provide context for Snowden's subsequent disclosures.

Among the background footage shown in the first hour is a clip of then N.S.A. director Gen. Jack R. Clapper caught telling a bald-faced lie at an earlier 2013 Congressional Hearing in which he was directly asked Sen. Ron Wyden, D-OR: "Does the NSA collect any data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans."  Gen. Clapper responded: "No sir.  Not wittingly.  There are perhaps cases when they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly." (The same exchange appears near the beginning (4:37-4:56) of Part II of the PBS Frontline documentary The United States of Secrets [2014] [IMDb]).  Apparently, this public lie was the final straw for Snowden, who knew far better, resulting in the exchange of e-mails between Snowden and Poitras producing the 7-10 debriefing with Snowden in Hong Kong.

The documentary, which then documents this remarkable 7-10 days of history presents both Snowden being interviewed by Greenwald, MacAskill and Poitras and then the initial reactions of both the Obama Administration and the rest of the world's press to the rolling disclosures being published first by Greenwald in The Guardian and then Barton Gelman and Laura Poitras in the Washington Post (Washington Post correspondent Barton Gelman had also been contacted in the months previous by Snowden, but preferred to remain in the States rather than go out to interview him face as did the already overseas residing Greenwald and Poitras).

The key disclosures were that of the NSA's routine monitoring of "metadata" from ALL PHONE CALLS and electronic communications via VIRTUALLY ALL major American telecommunications companies like Verizon, ATT, Sprint, etc (as reported by Greenwald and MacAskill's articles [1] [2]) and the NSA's mining via the PRISM program of VIRTUALLY ALL information stored on / passing through VIRTUALLY ALL major internet services like Facebook, Yahoo, Google, AOL, etc (as reported by Gelman and Poitras' WP article).

The shock of Snowden's disclosures centered ON THE EXTENT of the surveillance / monitoring.  Instead of "a few bad apples" being monitored, Snowden's disclosures made clear that VIRTUALLY EVERYONE'S ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATION, if perhaps initially "anonymously" was being monitored by the NSA.

Note that the PBS Frontline documentary The United States of Secrets (Part II) [2014] [IMDb] noted that internet services like Google and Facebook ALREADY MINED ALL POSTINGS, EMAILS and SEARCHES for "Advertising Potential."  However, it noted that the NSA has become essentially ONE OF THEIR "CLIENTS." 

In the final analysis, the Snowden's disclosures have made it clear _to everyone_ what already most of us have suspected for a while: Our privacy is basically gone.

Talking about the film with a friend of mine afterwards, he put it this way: "We basically live today in an electronic East Germany.  We simply have to assume that EVERYTHING that we share electronically WITH ANYONE is being mined."  Perhaps "some of the motives" of "some of those doing the mining" are "benign" -- they just want an edge to sell us something -- but we can never be absolutely sure of who all is doing the mining and why.

As such, this has got to be one of the most remarkable "you are there" films ever made about one of the most important stories of our time.

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