Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Pondering CITIZENFOUR (2014)

I technically missed CITIZENFOUR at the New York Film Festival. The film premiered on the last Friday of the Festival but I was too beat to see it so I saw it early in the morning two days later, at a press screening on what was technically the last day of the festival. The screening, 930 on a Sunday morning was lightly attended, The reaction when the film ended was silence, which is typical for a press screening (you know you've got a hot film if there is applause).  As I was talking to the PR rep in the lobby the other critics coming out described the film as interesting.

I'm mentioning the reaction to the film for a reason. If you were following the media reaction to the film on Twitter or elsewhere after the first New York Film Festival screening you would have thought the film was the second coming of Edward Snowden with talk of people being moved and an extended standing ovation.

For those who don't know the film is the story of how Edward Snowden contacted filmmaker Laura Poitras and began the release of material through her and her friend Glenn Greewald. We see the exchange of emails that lead to the meeting with Snowden in Hong Hong and we watch as he is forced to flee to Moscow. There is also a great deal of discussion about what exactly the government and other governments are doing in collecting data.

My reaction to the film is that it would be a great hour long documentary if it wasn't stretched to two hours.There is no way around it the film is too long and ultimately too unfocused to hold your attention.  Part of the problem is that while the film is nominally Snowden's story the film branches off into other directions.We follow some of the ripples the Snowden material caused. We watch as the Guardian tries to handle how to release some of the information and we watch as Brazil gets annoyed at US spying. There is also a random sequence of a speech given by the Security Head of Occupy Wall Street about how linking everything together allows the government to track us. The material is in theory on point but is just throw together instead of being linked together.

Its interesting stuff and each bit should be a film of it's own, The trouble is here its tiny bits of material that kind of comes and goes and isn't all that well formed as anything other than cinematic declarative statements or headlines. There is no meat beyond the bit.

The real problem is that the focus of the film, or what we've been told is the focus, Edward Snowden is only in the film for a certain amount of time. We only really see him sitting in a hotel room talking about code keys, what the US government is going to track him, and a little bit about the revelations. We don't really get any sense of the man as a person or even why he did what he did beyond feeling obligated. There is no sense of the man or his life. Worse after a certain point he disappears as he goes to Russia after which we get a brief glimpse of him at the very end talking Greenwald in a hotel room in Moscow. (Aslight digression, I'm amused that exchange we see is done via handwritten notes which see part of before they are then destroyed, however they hold them up to each other, and the light, so we can see the writing through the paper )

Its kind of interesting, but for me it kind of felt like they only had so much material, despite being with Snowden for many days, and had to stretch it out. I understand that the Snowden didn't want to talk about his family and such at the time, but now much of that is public record, why not include it?

The filmmakers solution to filling time is to repeat things. Points are gone over again and again.I got bored, especially at how much material is repeated as points are beaten home. I mean do we really need the full  take of Greenwald's Brazilian testimony since it repeats everything we've seen?

The real problem with the film is that there is nothing new here other than the revelations at the end of a watch list and new leaker. Everything else in this film is stuff that you know if you've been watching the news since Snowden appeared. Even the story of Snowden's travels have been so documented that there is no tension. 

What amazes me is that the revelation of the US government tapping phone lines and collecting data is really considered shocking since its well known that they were doing it going back for decades. There were even news stories about the government getting scared because when cellphones were becoming popular they had to find ways to continue their surveillance which they couldn't do, at the time, if it wasn't on a landline. Even the trunk line to Europe was supposed to have been tapped. Everyone applauds Snowden for the release, rightly so, but this shit has been going on for decades but most people were never curious enough to see. 

I've gotten into several arguments/discussions about the film and it's importance. People are telling me that the film is important for any number of reasons, largely having to do with the revelations it brings together. But I can't really agree. 

For me the film isn't important because it has too much stuff that doesn't belong. There isn't much beyond the basic revelation, which I'm guessing everyone knows going in.The film has too much other material in it that just distracts from all of the central points. We don't need much of the other non-Snowden material. And the film suffers from not saying much beyond the government is tapping and recording everything. 



In other documentaries, such as several of the HBO documentaries on what is going on in Russia, say on Pussy Riot or the hunting of homosexuals,we see something beyond the one person telling us about what is going on. We actually see something beyond the statement.

Okay yes this is a film about Snowden  and his release of documents, but the film starts throws the net wider, to Brazil, to the Hague, to Occupy Wall Street, but it doesn't show us why they should be in this film. Why are we everywhere but with Snowden?

Actually why don't we really get to know him? I mean the  most we get about him in person, is his worrying about his girlfriend, and watching him shave and style his hair. Is he that bland or is he something else?

What bother me most about any positive reaction to it, is that those cheering it on will be happy that some one is revealing how their rights are being chipped away at, however very few of them will do more than cheer. They will get angry and talk to their friends, but they will go home and do nothing. They will not take up the mantle of Snowden and actually do anything. If this were truly a great film, it would move people to do something, instead of letting other people make the sacrifice for their liberty. 

This film doesn't go far enough.

Is CITIZENFOUR a bad film? No but it is, as I think it will be seen once some time passes, to be an unremarkable one.

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