At about the halfway point of Citizenfour, we see Edward Snowden preparing to leave his hotel in Hong Kong for the first time in over a week. While breaking news reports about him play offscreen, we watch him fuss with his hair in the mirror. A look of consternation plays across his face as he realizes that the hair at the back of his head won't go down. It's among the few moments in the film that underscores the human at the heart of the international scandal. It's also one of the few times that director Laura Poitras editorializes the material in any way.
A lesser artist could have squandered the opportunity to document the vital, terrifying subject of this film, which is the immediate aftermath of Snowden's leak of classified NSA files. At the center of the film are a week's worth of interviews between Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, an American journalist whom Snowden entrusted to strategically publish details about the leak to ensure that the message behind it was not overshadowed by its perpetrator. Eventually, he gives his infamous video interview in which he identifies himself and his intentions, after which he sets out on the run, ending up in Russia, where he has since been granted one year's asylum.
Poitras's approach in this film embodies Snowden's injunctions against focusing too much on him to the detriment of spreading awareness of the United States government's crimes against not just Americans, but the whole world. He's her subject, but only insofar that we can gain the truth from him most directly and clearly. Poitras exhaustively explores the issue of privacy in the modern world, preferring presentation over sensationalization. We watch the NSA director lie though his teeth at a senate hearing. Hacker Jacob Applebaum delivers an impassioned speech about the importance of privacy at a human rights' gathering. We are shown Snowden's leaked documents, which are impenetrable to most anyone but an intelligence analyst, yet the hullabaloo around them tell us everything. Intermittent, staged instant message conversations between Snowden and Poitras connect the dots, as well as the Mathilde Bonnefoy's editing, which visually establishes a chronology out of all the chaos.
Poitras was already on the government's radar before she made Citizenfour, because her Oscar-nominated 2006 documentary My Country—an unsavory look at the U.S. occupation of Iraq—had caught their attention. During the process of shooting this film, she was being watched and followed. Even more stunning is that there is footage from as recently as July 2014 in the film, which means that Poitras worked fast, and that she had little time to fuss around with her footage. It's all for the better. Through her restraint, Poitras has crafted a powerful, deeply unsettling portrayal of the shaky foundation of contemporary freedom.