Film review – CitizenFour (Robert Henderson)

Robert Henderson

Film review – CitizenFour

Main people involved

Jacob Appelbaum
Ewen MacAskill
Edward Snowden
Director: Laura Poitras

This documentary about state surveillance revolves around Edward Snowden as interviewee and the journalists Glen Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill as interviewers . The interviews were primarily conducted in Hong Kong to where Snowden fled before moving to Russia.

As a man who has been much in the news since June 2013 but little seen and heard, to see what Snowden is made of when interviewed at length is naturally intriguing with a further enticement to watch being the possibility that he might reveal some dramatic new details of state misbehaviour. Consequently, it might be thought the film would contain plenty to interest and alarm anyone worried about the imbalance between the power of the state and civil liberties. Sad to say there is little to excite the viewer because Snowden comes across as a distinctly colourless personality and there are no startling important new revelations. Worse, there is something essential missing: nowhere is there any serious attempt to test either the veracity of the information Snowden made public or his declared motivation.

Whenever someone whistle blows on the state apparatus those receiving the information are presented with what might be called the “double agent” problem. Is the whistle-blower what he seems? Is he telling the simple truth or is he working to his own or the state’s agenda which will be far from the truth? Snowden could logically be in any one of these situations:

  1. He is telling the truth about the information he provides and his motives.
  2. He is acting voluntarily as a covert agent of the US state.
  3. He is acting voluntarily as an agent of a foreign state.
  4. He is acting voluntarily on behalf of a non-state actor.
  5. He is acting under duress from any of the actors in 2-4.

Possibilities 2-5 went unexplored. They did not even ask Snowden how he was paying his way since his flight. (Always ask about the money. I once badly threw David Shayler at a public meeting by asking how he was existing ). That left only possibility 1, that Snowden was simply telling the truth, to be examined by the film. However, the film failed even there. The two interviewers simply asked Snowden questions and accepted his answers at face value.

How plausible is Snowden as the selfless idealist he portrays himself as? In the film he appears to be surprisingly little troubled by his predicament. This could be reasonably interpreted as someone who had his present position worked out in advance of his whistle blowing (All the shuffling about in Hong Kong before going to Moscow could have just been to substantiate his claim that he was acting of his own volition or, less probably, perhaps China had agreed to give him sanctuary and then changed their minds). Not convinced, then ask yourself how likely it is that anyone would have been willing to blow the gaffe on US state secrets without having the assurance that afterwards he would be in a place safe from the US authorities? If Snowden is ever brought to trial in the US it would be more or less certain that he would get a massive prison sentence. In theory at least, he might be executed for treason.

Then there is Lindsay Mills, the partner Snowden ostensibly left behind without explanation. She has joined him in Moscow. When Snowden speaks in the film of his decision to leave Mills without explanation, he tells the story with an absence of animation that would not have disgraced a marble statue. All very odd unless the story that he left her in the dark was simply a blind to both protect her and provide a veil of confusion as to his whereabouts immediately after the initial release of information.

As for Mills she made a number of entries to a blog she ran after Snowden’s flight to Hong Kong. . Here’s an example: “As I type this on my tear-streaked keyboard I’m reflecting on all the faces that have graced my path. The ones I laughed with. The ones I’ve held. The one I’ve grown to love the most. And the ones I never got to bid adieu.” Does someone who is supposedly seriously traumatised produce such a studied attempt at what she doubtless sees as “fine writing” ? Anyone care to bet that she was not in on the plot all along?

Snowden also engages onscreen in some very unconvincing bouts of paranoia such as covering his head with a cloth in the manner of an old time photograph to avoid a password he is putting being read, showing great alarm at a fire alarm going off repeated and unplugging a phone which keeps ringing on the grounds that the room could be bugged through the phone line. Well, it could be but so what? Provided Snowden only said what he is willing to have included in the film it would not matter if his conversations with the documentary makers was bugged. It all seemed very contrived and could plausibly be interpreted as Snowden self-consciously and ineptly acting out what he imagines to be the way someone in his position would behave.

Apart from the stark failure to press Snowden adequately, the questioning of Greenwald and MacAskill’s was woefully inept. Neither had any idea of how to build a line of questioning or how to play a witness which is essentially the position Snowden occupied. For example, one of the most difficult disciplines an investigator has to master is to allow the person being questioned to do as much of the talking as possible without being prompted . That necessitates being patient and tolerating long periods of silence when the person being questioned does not reply to a question quickly. Those who have seen the film American Hustle will remember the Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper characters. The Bale character understands the art of taking your time, letting a mark come to you rather than you going to them. Cooper’s character is for ever messing up Bale’s plans by rushing in and pressing matters. Obviously in a documentary you cannot allow silence to continue for very long, but even allowing a minute’s silence can be very revealing of a person who is failing to answer. Here Greenwald just could not let him stew for even a moment..

Greenwald’s other problem is that he loves the sound of his own voice far too much and has an irritating habit of delivering platitudes in a manner that suggests he is offering ideas of the greatest profundity. MacAskill was palpably nervous and routinely asked innocuous questions and after they were asked seemed relieved that he had put a question, any question .

Apart from the interview with Snowden, there was little of interest to anyone who has an interest in state surveillance because it was all widely known material bar one item. This was a recording of a court hearing in the USA which AT&T phone customers took action against the state over unwarranted surveillance which showed the US government lawyer arguing in effect that the case court had no jurisdiction over the matter and being slapped down by one of the judges.

Is the film worth seeing? Probably only as a documentation of Snowden’s personality. It reveals nothing new about the extent of the misbehaviour the US state or why and how Snowden did what he did. Nor would the film be likely to educate someone who was ignorant, because the details of what the US government was up to were offered in too piecemeal a fashion for a coherent idea of what had happened to emerge for someone starting from scratch.

8 thoughts on “Film review – CitizenFour (Robert Henderson)

  1. It sounds like a dreadful film Mr Henderson – a group of smug Guardian reading types congratulating each other.

    As for Mr Snowden – the libertarian Tim Starr has looked into the case and he is not impressed by the man.

    • Paul Marks – truth to tell it is a boring film. Snowden has all the personality of a wet fish, the interviewers are grossly incompetent, no attempt is made to press Snowden on why he did it and how he has ended up in Moscow – there has to be a suspicion he was working for Russia – there were no details of what Snowden was being paid, if anything, by the film producers, and no startling new disclosures.

  2. 6) There is also the possibility that he is the unknowing dupe of forces – most likely foreign intelligence agencies – that he does not really understand and certainly cannot control. His repeated assertion that no material could have ‘fallen into the hands’ of the Russian or Chinese authorities is beyond naive.

    Most of what Snowden ‘revealed’ was widely suspected prior to publication in the Guardian and the Washington Post. The Patriot Act is a matter of public record.

    Snowden successfully retarded the debate about these laws and associated abuses by making (or allowing the media the opportunity to make) the story all about him.

    • Lost Leonardo – I did consider your suggestion while I was writing the piece, but I couldn’t see how the useful idiot option could exist in this case. Snowden is clear as to his ostensible motivation – horror at the gross breaching of personal liberty by his government – so it is difficult to see how he could have been duped in any way. He strikes me as politically naive but that in itself does not make him a useful idiot. .

  3. Snowden stated that he was running on his own reserves of cash. He will probably make money on publishing a book. He was probably counting on News television paying for speaking on their channels. Family might be funding him as well. We do know that he opened up a kettle of fish the government didn’t want opened. Obama has been doing a lot of things behind the backs of citizens trashing Amendments and Constitution. Obama is building Big Brother in America faster than any previous president and no one but Snowden has been willing to do much about it. Rather than bad mouthing Snowden we should all wonder what Obama is doing in other areas.
    We had a Canadian who blew the whistle on PM Jean Chretien’s secret slush fund that was unaccountable to the Auditor General, Sheila Fraser. The Liberal Party was in fact stealing millions if not billions of dollars from federal tax reserves unaccountably. This money was then finding its way to PR companies to heighten awareness of Canada in Quebec. If you admit that that sounds absurd you would be correct that it is absurd, but true as well. Then these same companies would give kickbacks to the Liberal Party coffers. Now we all know that is a criminal act that Mohamar Khadafy might be accused of, but a Canadian political party?
    But that is exactly what was going on and to top it off the Liberal Party leader at the time of inquiry was PM Paul Martin who personally selected a judge from Quebec, Justice Gomery a friend of the Liberals. The inquiry was a year and out of it came two absurd rulings. Whistle Blowers were now criminals. That Gomery ruled that the Liberal Party and its then leader was exonerated of all wrongdoing. The fact that Chretien stole the money is not in question as the Liberal party decided they should repay some money to Canada that was more a spit in the face of our democracy. Justice Gomery made a list of recommendations in his, get this, 10,000 page summary that stated that the PR companies should repay some money for over-charging. That was the best that Gomery would do against these political criminals. The whistle blower lost his job. All future whistle blowers would have to go to their superiors who were stealing from Canadian tax coffers and report their theft to their bosses. They could not take their findings to the police or RCMP whose job it is to root out criminals within the federal government. You get the picture here? The Snowden’s who take risks to expose these criminals should never be taken lightly or some people just say, “That’s nothing new.” Snowden risked everything because he thought rightly that he had an obligation to protect us, but what did we do to protect him?
    My objection is to the writer of this article who has attempted to undermine Snowden’s actions. I would hope that anyone who viewed the film, as I did, would understand that what Snowden did was extraordinary and should be applauded. Now it’s our turn to demand answers from government that thinks we don’t know how to live our own lives without their worthy advice. We should all be demanding accountability of our tax dollars. Not just how much is spent, but what they spend it on.

  4. Larry – he went untested by hard questioning. That in itself is suspicious. One can allow a certain amount for the ineptness of the questioners, but the only reason he was not pressed at all can only be that the makers of the film and Snowden agreed that he would not be pressed. He was given a free run.

    I am an experienced interviewer, Larry, and I can assure you that Snowden’s behaviour was unnatural. All through he appeared to be playing a part, albeit very badly.

    As for the money, being on the run is an expensive business. He had quite a well paid job but not that well paid. It is possible that he might have stashed away, say, $50k but that would not last long when he is living in very expensive places such as Moscow and Hong Kong, especially as people would know who he was and be likely to bang up things such as rent. Unless he is getting help from the Russian government, a surrogate for the Russian government or from the media how would he survive? Unless we know how he is existing his bona fides cannot be established.

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