2014’s Academy Award winning documentary CITIZENFOUR is a real life international thriller that unfolds by the minute. With unprecedented access, this gripping behind-the-scenes chronicle follows award winning director Laura Poitras (My Country, My Country) and journalist Glenn Greenwald’s remarkable encounters with whistle-blower Edward Snowden in a hotel room in Hong Kong, as he hands over classified documents that provide evidence of mass indiscriminate and illegal invasions of privacy by the National Security Agency (NSA). The documentary not only shows the dangers of governmental surveillance, but makes audiences feel them. After seeing the film, viewers will never think the same way about their phone, e-mail, credit cards, web browser or digital footprint again.
There are many instances of high profile whistleblowing in the history books. There have even been big films made about real-life whistleblowers (to name a couple, 'The Insider' and 'The Informant!') – but none of the well-known instances have warranted the life-altering consequences as those of Edward Snowden. If someone snitches on a tobacco or food company for doing something unethical or illegal, that's one thing; but ratting on your own government for breaking privacy laws, amongst other criminal acts, is a completely different thing. It's treason.
In December of 2012, after years of being privy to classified and top secret documents, 29-year-old "Ed" Snowden, a government contractor living in Hawaii, could no longer morally and consciously keep the deepest secrets to himself. Through anonymous and encrypted sources, he reached out to two people: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald and controversial documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. With their help, he strategically leaked the most shady skeletons in the U.S. government's closet.
After a few months, in early 2013, Snowden extracted the undeniable proof of his claims from well-protected top secret systems. He took thousands and thousands of confidential documents, called in sick, and headed to a Hong Kong. There, in a small hotel room, he met up with Poitras and Greenwald, as well as a colleague of Greenwald's from London's biggest newspaper, The Guardian. After giving them each a digitl back-up of the documents and showing him how to navigate through them, the three of them started planning how to break the news, always taking into account how the media and the White House's damage control team would react. At this point, you might assume that it would be fair to say that “the rest is history,” but it's really not. As told by the media, Snowden's story and the leaks that emerged were just a fraction of the full story.
Snowden didn't steal and leak the documents for his own personal fame. As you'll learn by watching 'Citizenfour,' he wanted to keep himself out of the story as much as possible. Sadly, these days, the media focuses too much on the people who do things and not the things that they do. For example, we all know the names and backstories of the people who have shot up public places, but we don't know the names of the victims. In this instance, Snowden, Greenwald and Poitras knew that the media would focus more on who was leaking documents than the story that the documents told. In the initial days of the leak, he was able to stay out of the spotlight, but that didn't last long.
At this point, you're probably thinking, Luke, if he didn’t want to be the focus of the story, then why is this documentary all about him? Good question. Thanks for asking. Interesting enough, 'Citizenfour' isn’t really about Snowden; it's about the government, the leak and the dishonest way that the government reacted to it. The film perfectly opens up with some insight as to what the government claimed to being doing regarding public privacy. It take more than 20 minutes for us to actually see Snowden on-screen. Once we do, it's minimally about Snowden himself. Instead, it shows him plotting the leak and discussing the specifics of the leak. We follow the story as it breaks from inside Snowden's hotel room. Once his identity and location are revealed, he had to go into hiding. After leaving the hotel, aside from one follow-up scene that takes place in his current home in Russia, he exits the picture and the real story – that of the leak, the cover-ups, the lies – continues. You don't, nor are you meant to, walk away from 'Citizenfour' feeling like you now know Ed Snowden. Instead, you feel like you know more about the unethical and incorrect things that are done by people with too much power for "the greater good."
Although others exhaust its usage, I've never before used this term to describe a film, but it's absolutely relevant in this case; 'Citizenfour' is important. No matter your nationality, you need to be aware of what's going on. No person or thing can better describe the current situation regarding privacy. As the news of Snowden's leaks broke, the serious story at hand became lost in the bio of "who is Ed Snowden." The media put the emphasis where it didn't belong and deflected our attention from where is should have been. 'Citizenfour' sets the record straight. It won the Best Documentary Academy Award for a reason. If you didn't catch it during its post-Oscar run on HBO, you can now check it out on Blu-ray for a very low price.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Radius has placed 'Citizenfour' on a Region A BD-50 disc and placed it in a standard blue Elite keepcase. Unfortunately, no digital copy is provided. The disc kicks off with unskippable vanity reels for Anchor Bay and The Weinstein Company, followed by trailers for 'The Hunting Ground,' 'The Unknown Known' and 'The Great Invisible.'
'Citizenfour' hits Blu-ray with a sharp 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that’s presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Considering that documentary films are made with pretty low budgets, the video qualities of many suffer. Some are shot purely on GoPros, which doesn't translate well to high-definition; however, with the exception of some footage captured in Brazil, that's not the case with 'Citizenfour.' Poitras and her crew are credited with shooting their footage solely on high quality Sony NEX-FS100 cameras (although I believed some lesser digital cameras were used for South American shoots). Clarity, sharpness and fine details hold up very well. Within the hotel room, textures of clothing and fabrics are apparent. Shots of Snowden highlight his finer facial features: hair follicles, pores, moles and blemishes. Even aerial B-roll footage of neighborhoods and a distant under-construction data center carry strong qualities.
Several issues pop up from time to time, but definitely without frequency. They are truly outliers. Some Brazil footage appears to have been shot with higher compression and/or lower resolution. Object edges are slightly jagged and pixelated. One evening shot of Rio de Janeiro's cityscape features crushing and some artifacts. One nighttime shot of a Hong Kong cityscape features a small amount of noise. And very occasionally throughout the movie, you'll notice dead pixels come and go. With some of the scenes consisting of very long single takes, the eye-catching dead pixels may linger. News footage pulled from CNN is definitely lacking quality, but the blame for that does not lie with the video transfer.
Documentaries are not known for their ability to craft stunning sounds mixes, but the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix of 'Citizenfour' is pretty solid. The important aspect of this mix is the dialog. The subjects almost always wear lapel mics, so the vocal recordings are typically strong. On a few occasions, an article of clothing or a hand will brush the mic and create a rough scratch, but that doesn't happen often. The only time that dialog becomes hard to hear is when Poitras, who is not mic'd and seems to try to stay out of the narrative, asks a questions or makes a comment from behind the camera. Her voice is definitely audible, but it's not as clear as the others'.
As expected, only a few occasions within 'Citizenfour' liven the surround channels. The first happens right in the beginning of the film when we see Greenwald in his rural Brazil home. Hidden within a jungle, the sounds of bugs and animal life can be heard through all the channels. The second noticeable instance happens in the hotel room when a fire alarm sounds in the hallway. The repeated blare also emits from all channels.
I've never before labeled a film as "important," but that's the only word to genuinely describe how I feel about 'Citizenfour.' Not only does it contain information that every world citizen should know, but it's absolutely riveting – and that's despite over half of this documentary taking place in a confined and claustrophobic hotel room. Getting the full story from start to finish and watching it as it unfolds is a bonus that we don't get with many documentaries. Regarding the presentation, both the video and audio qualities are better than those of most docs. The deleted scenes are okay – nothing special or revealing – but the collective hour and a half of interviews and Q&As really add to the story. I have friends that refuse to listen to anything regarding Snowden because their patriotism will not allow them care one ounce about what the "treasonous traitor" did. Even if you feel that same way, cast aside those sentiments and hear the full story. It's not only one worth listening to, but it's one that should be told to everyone - especially from this perspective.