Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5. USA/Germany/United Kingdom, 2014. Praxis Films, Participant Media, HBO Documentary Films. Cinematography by Kirsten Johnson, Trevor Paglen, Laura Poitras, Katy Scoggin. Produced by Mathilde Bonnefoy, Laura Poitras, Dirk Wilutzky. Film Editing by Mathilde Bonnefoy. Academy Awards 2014. Boston Film Critics Awards 2014. Gotham Awards 2014. Independent Spirit Awards 2014. Las Vegas Film Critics 2014. New York Film Critics Awards 2014. North Carolina Film Critics Awards 2014. Phoenix Film Critics Awards 2014.
Filmmaker Laura Poitras’ career of politically incendiary films had already made her a target for government watch lists when she began work on a film examining the change in practices of the intelligence community post-9/11. Early in pre-production she begins to receive encrypted emails from a source insisting that they meet so he can share his own experience with her, describing himself as a high-ranking analyst with top-secret clearance who has fled the country and plans to expose crooked government practices in intelligence gathering. Poitras soon finds herself in a Hong Kong hotel room along with Glenn Greenwald, an American reporter based in Brazil, and the questions they ask this mysterious agent reveal terrifying details: the N.S.A. has access to the entire country’s telephone communications and emails and gathers data on all its citizens under the guise of preventing another attack like the one on September 11, 2001. The gentleman in question turns out to be Edward Snowden, and in this calmly paced but astonishingly creepy documentary, we witness his revelations before seeing the now world-famous unveiling to the media of his identity. Poitras gives as much necessary weight to his information as she does to his experience: you could write him off as paranoid except that his technological expertise is genuine, so when his girlfriend tells him that construction trucks are showing up on her street for no reason, or the fire alarm starts going off on his hotel floor, you share his increasing anxiety about what is going to happen next. Pursuit of glory could be easily read into his actions, but even that is a complicated assumption: Snowden is honest about wanting to stand on his own and do what others are afraid to do, but at the same time he does insist on breaking the story in a way that, in the current climate of personality cults, he hopes does not become all about him. The film eventually evolves into a real life John Le Carre story, with Poitras and Greenwald being followed everywhere and Snowden consulting human rights lawyers on how to safely be evacuated from Hong Kong beyond the reach of the felony charges that have been placed upon him back home. Poitras accents these sequences with terrific selections of news footage that will recreate the era for viewers effectively in the years to come.