On Watching Citizenfour

November 12, 2014


A few weeks ago, when I heard about Ben Bradlee’s death, I stopped what I was doing and immediately screened All the President’s Men to relive the glory that was Watergate.

Debbie profile picAs amazing as that experience was, it was nothing compared to watching Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s new film about the biggest news story of this era: Edward Snowden’s leaks about how the US spies on everybody.

First, a caveat. Citizenfour is not the journalism procedural that All the President’s Men was. Using their wits, their phones, and learning a lot of investigative reporting along the way, Woodward and Bernstein tracked a bungled burglary all the way to the White House. It was a coup of gumshoe reporting.

By contrast, Edward Snowden dropped his story right into the laps of Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. It’s what Watergate would have been if Deep Throat had tied the story up in a nice bow, handed it to Woodward and Bernstein, and then added, and please don’t worry about using my name.

Greenwald, in fact, almost lost the story because he didn’t know encryption. Luckily, Laura Poitras did, and it was through her that Snowden ultimately reached Greenwald — giving the story to both them at the same time. And that’s pretty much all the film is. Edward Snowden, in a hotel room in Hong Kong, telling his story to Guardian reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill (sent in to help Greenwald), with Laura Poitras filming the whole thing.

Which is — trust me — amazing. We see Greenwald and MacAskill registering the enormity of the story and asking good reportly questions. We see Greenwald on TV explaining the story and its import to newscasters. And we see a lot of Snowden, sitting on the bed, explaining why he’s decided to leak the information, how various pieces of the spying network work, and the precautions they all should take.

The movie is billed as a thriller, and a thriller it truly is — even if you do know how it’s going to turn out. Trained, as we are, by hours of watching 24 and Homeland, we half expect a sniper to take out Snowden every time he walks over to the window. And never has an errant fire alarm seemed so scary.

What makes it so compelling is a simple principle that Jay Rosen calls the origins of authority in journalism: “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.”

Snowden was there, Greenwald was there, MacAskill was there — and together, with the institutional backing of The Guardian — they got the story out into the world. Poitras was there too, quietly filming the whole thing, and 15 months later, she told the same story through the medium of documentary. She showed us the people in the room. She showed us the reporters as they actually heard the story. Not actors. Not the players, re-enacting the scene. But what really went down.

None of this would be compelling, of course, if it wasn’t such an important story, a story that in fact makes Watergate look like amateur hour.

In my little corner of the journalism industrial complex, we worry a lot about two things: local reporting and the sustainability of news organizations. These are important things, but they are often smallish things.

Watching Citizenfour is like watching the seventh game of the World Series — it’s the game of journalism at its pinnacle.

We need it all. We need pee wee leagues and little leagues and high school ball and college ball and farm teams. We need blogs and hyperlocal news sites and weekly newspapers and metropolitan newspapers and public radio and tv news departments.

But there are times when we have to put down our bats and gloves and just watch what’s happening on Mount Olympus. To see how it’s done when the stakes couldn’t be higher. When the liberty of the individual is pitted against the biggest power in the world.

Debbie Galant is associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State. She also writes essays on Medium.

Photo: Edward Snowden on Citizenfour movie poster. Source: Pinterest