The tele-screen received and transmitted simultaneously. … There was of course no way of knowing when you were being watched. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual was guesswork. At any rate they could plug in to your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — on the assumption that every sound you made was heard, and … every movement scrutinized.” — George Orwell, “1984”

Ever since its first publication in 1949, the novel “1984” has represented everything freedom-loving people are supposed to fear and loathe. “Big Brother is watching you” became shorthand for a nightmarish totalitarian state of thought police, torture and insidious surveillance technology. That was them, we re-assured ourselves, the East Germans with their Stasi, the Russians with their KGB.

As it turns out, that was also us — or should I say U.S.? Journalist and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras was contacted in early 2013 by an anonymous intelligence community source using the code-name Citizenfour. He warned her of the need for extreme caution, that “every border you cross, every article you write, site you visit, subject line you type and packet you route is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited, but whose safeguards are not.” That source turned out to be Edward Snowden.

Run Time 113 mins
Language English

“Citizenfour” is Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary of meeting Snowden and the chaos that ensued. It’s a documentary in the truest sense, a historical record of events as they unfold. Poitras travels to a Hong Kong hotel room with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill of The Guardian; they meet an exceptionally paranoid young man who immediately rips out all their SIM cards and even unplugs the landline phone. It’s Snowden, but they don’t even know his name yet.

“Citizenfour” places us in that room as Snowden, an NSA contractor with top-level security clearance, explains to them the implications of the classified documents he’s leaking; it proves that the NSA was hoovering up telecommunications data at home as well as abroad, and spying on Americans. The more they learn, the more they realize that the police could be kicking in the door at any moment.

“Citizenfour” is not the best movie to see for a clean and easy overview of Snowden’s revelations. While good at framing the issues of privacy and government impunity, it’s better at giving us a sense of who Snowden is and why he did this.

“I’m not the story here,” he insists. “We all have a stake in this. The balance of power between the citizenry and the government is becoming that of the ruling and the ruled.”

Anyone who watches this will have a hard time reconciling the disciplined and sincere man they see on the screen with the supposedly reckless and egomaniacal publicity-hound his critics have painted him as. (And it’s especially galling to see U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry calling Snowden a “traitor,” given that back in the day he himself was vilified in the same way by Nixon’s minions for his work with whistleblowers Vietnam Veterans Against the War.)

“Citizenfour” has no happy ending. National Intelligence Director James Clapper, who told a bald-faced lie to Congress in March 2013 — Senator Ron Wyden: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions of Americans?” Clapper: “No, sir. Not wittingly.” —was not charged with perjury and disgracefully remains in office. (Thanks, Obama.)

Snowden, who revealed that lie, wound up stuck in transit in Moscow after his passport was revoked, and has been living in exile in Russia ever since, under threat of multiple felony charges. How ironic that the only refuge from the long arm of the American secret police is in the land of the KGB — or as Orwell called them, Oceania and Eurasia.

Damn, that book is looking less like fiction with each passing day.

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