Making Sense of Snowden in ‘Citizenfour’



There are several reasons you should watch Citizenfour, the Oscar-winning documentary about Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor whose 2013 leak of classified documents to journalists set off a massive debate about privacy and government surveillance. The film is out this week on Blu-ray and DVD with an array of fascinating special features. It doesn’t matter if you decide that Snowden is a traitor, a patriot or some hard-to-define combination of both, this is a compelling and important film about the business of protecting the United States and the debate over security vs. privacy we all face.

Citizenfour was directed by documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. Snowden contacted her before he leaked the files and she chronicled the entire experience. The movie unfolds as Snowden reveals himself to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill. No one knows how the story will unfold and the uncertainty creates a tension that’s missing from virtually every other documentary film ever, the ones where talking heads describe what happened in the past and everything they say is colored by the fact that they know the outcome of events.

Reasons to watch:

  • If you’re an Oliver Stone fan, you definitely want to see this before his new movie Snowden opens this Christmas. There’s sure to be a big chunk of Stone’s movie that just recreates scenes from this film.
  • If you’re a fan of ’70s spy thrillers like Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View, Poitras (either consciously or unconsciously) edited this movie to feel like those classic espionage movies.
  • If you’re in the national security business (which pretty much covers virtually everyone who reads this site in one way or another), this film vividly portrays the post-9/11 debates about what means the government should pursue to protect the country’s citizens from terrorist attacks.


In addition to three scenes deleted from the movie, the disc’s extras include an hour-long interview of Poitras, Greenwald and Snowden conducted by New York Times journalist David Carr, conducted just a few hours before he died at his desk. There’s also a half-hour interview with Poitras conducted by Dennis Lim at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. You also get this profile of former NSA employee William Binney, a documentary short originally created for the New York Times website.

Poitras’ film should inspire debate. Even if Snowden is a traitor, money or a desire for fame don’t seem to have been motivating factors. He seems resigned to going to prison during the course of the movie and the fact that he’s ended up living in Russia doesn’t seem a cause for celebration in his household. For better or worse, Snowden has forever altered the conversation about intelligence gathering in this country and, for that reason alone, this film is worth your time.

  • Larry cooper

    Go ahead and hang him!Wehave allowed the flower children to usurp the uv just.lets get back to preserving what countless personnel died for!eee

  • Shawn McFadden

    He’s still a traitor who needs to be put in chains for what he did!!!

  • shipfixr

    How I hate it that they glorify this guy; if he had so much strength of his convictions….why didn’t he stand up for them in court instead of sneaking off to Russia? Had he done that I may not have agreed with him but I would have had to admire him standing up for his beliefs. The guy is a traitor, he knows it and that’s why he ran.

  • Delta1

    The US government illegally monitors and records and lies to it’s citizens about it. It forces communication companies to hand over our conversations. In any other business / industry, a whistle-blower is acclaimed a hero. There are even laws to protect whistle-blowers. If you think the current government is on your side, study history and think again.
    Snowden is a hero of the highest order.

  • Joe_Wulf

    Snowden is a traitor. He should be given a fair trial (really/truly), then promptly taken out back and executed!

  • RichF

    I find it reprehensible that he should be imprisoned at all. Any person who performs any ‘whistle blowing’ in the private field is rewarded for their actions. Snowden has alerted the people of the government’s actions to deprive us of our freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States of America. These freedoms have been preserved for us for almost 250 years by the sacrifice, blood, and lives of countless service men and patriots and should not be threatened by overzealous government workers and misguided politicians trying to find an expeditious solution to world problems.

    The wailings from Congress for Mr. Snowden’s head are an obvious attempt by them to hide their complicity to circumvent the Constitution. The lies by the President and the Director of the NSA to the public and Congress regarding the extent of spying and supposed controls in place to prevent malicious use of the collected data shows the extent of their deceitfulness connected to these programs. The massive revelations by him were necessary to show the extent of the government’s threat to the Constitution.

    Our Constitution has served this country well all these years and should not be threatened by lazy, misguided politicians, a fact that Mr. Snowden has tried to show us. He has put his whole life at risk to alert us to the government’s treachery. He deserves our thanks not prison. Don’t fail him or us.

  • Navyjag907

    The filmmaker, Poitras, according to this account knew he was going to do this before he started. I’d like to see her indicted and have to explain her actions or go to prison. She was involved before he committed his first criminal act. That’s definitely not okay–I’d like to see her and her crew swing for that.