CITIZENFOUR: Catnip for the Snowden Fanboy Base

Posted: Mar 16, 2015 12:01 AM
The weeks following any year’s Oscars are a home film festival at our house, an attempt to evaluate which movies were snubbed on the big night, and which were overpraised.

After absorbing the great performances but ultimately unsatisfying payoff of “Birdman,” and the underappreciated triumph of “Still Alice,” it was time to assess the documentary feature winner, “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras’ journey through a few days in Hong Kong with NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

My political differences with the filmmaker and her subject made me even more curious. She would have no trouble hitting a home run with surveillance-phobic libertarians and war-hating liberals. But could she connect on any level with me, through the obstacle of my profound distaste for Snowden’s traitorous narcissism?

Well, no. But before you think politics closed the door to any appreciation I might have had, understand that while Michael Moore makes my teeth itch, and “Fahrenheit 9/11” is dishonest to the core, I had to appreciate it for adeptly doing what it sought to do, with biting wit and skillfully applied venom.

“Citizenfour” does have a certain urgency as we see what was happening behind the scenes as Snowden sang his laments about threats to American freedom— and then waltzed off to the liberty havens of China and Russia.

But its attempts to paint Snowden in glowing pastels of heroism fall miles short for any but his pre-existing fan base.

That community clearly exists among film critics, who exalted “Citizenfour” as a masterpiece, driven perhaps by their impression that they were witnessing the inner workings of 21st-century high-tech patriotism instead of detestable treason.

The whole thing struck me as a fawning exercise akin to a talented teenager’s iPhone video of a week on the tour bus with Maroon 5.

Look! There’s Ed on his hotel bed (where half the film takes place), tapping a thoughtful email to his journalist co-conspirators. There’s Ed in a robe doing more keyboard tapping listening to Selena Gomez! Look, there’s Ed doing his hair, changing hotel rooms to avoid detection, musing on cue for the camera about What It All Means.

What a load.

This is a film by and about people who love themselves and each other, drunk on the contrived valor of raising alarms about surveillance that is nowhere near the menace of their fantasies.

Could it be, in sinister hands? Sure. But from a disgruntled former NSA official to an Occupy Wall Street security consultant, the film bristles with contrived panic from people who believe an Armageddon of spying is not on the horizon— it is here.

So where is the Rosa Parks of NSA surveillance? Where are the people whose lives have been ruined by the evil souls who say they are fighting terror but really want to know where we shop? Footage of those folks is curiously absent, because it is decidedly non-existent.

“Citizenfour” does capture moments of government fudging. I wish Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had said “I can’t answer that” when asked for details of NSA scrutiny of the public.

The fact is that honorable public servants have cast a wide and necessarily secret net to keep us safe, including the ability to connect dots when phone or web activity suggests evil may be afoot.

We should always guard against misuse of such technology. But we should not swallow fearmongering fed by political disdain for the techniques required for national security in the post- 9/11 world.

Ed Snowden’s amen chorus will swoon at this loving chronicle of his ascendancy to household name status. But for my movie dollar, give me “Zero Dark Thirty” and yes, “American Sniper”— examples of real heroes battling real threats.