Citizenfour is a documentary focused around Edward Snowden and his personal experience with how the War on Terror has led to the gradual increase in surveillance on American citizens.


Early in 2013, Laura Poitras, the director of Citizenfour, received anonymous, encrypted emails asking if she wanted to be part of the unveiling of top secret information about how the NSA was spying on U.S. citizens. This anonymous source, who called himself Citizen Four, was none other than Edward J. Snowden, a former employee of Booz Allen Hamilton.

Shortly after their initial contact, Poitras, and journalist Glenn Greenwald, flew to Hong Kong where Snowden was residing temporarily. They made elaborate plans to meet in a hotel lobby, and finally set up camp in one of the hotel rooms.

Much of the documentary took place in this hotel room, where Snowden divulged information about what he did while working for Booz Allen Hamilton. He explained that most of his tasks were coming straight from the NSA, and he soon became aware that his job entailed creating software that could invade the private lives of ordinary citizens.

Greenwald, who did most of the interviewing in the film, wanted viewers to get to know the person behind the story (Snowden) hoping it might help them to see him, not as a whistle-blower or traitor, but as a normal person: a fellow citizen, concerned with civil rights.

Edward Joseph Snowden was born in Elizabeth City, N.C., but grew up in Ford Meade, Md. In the film, Snowden came off as being shy, slightly nerdy, very serious about what was going on, and just a little paranoid. However, if the things he was saying were true, he had every right to be. He was concerned about his family, not wanting to involve them in his decision to come clean about the NSA’s involvement in information and data collection on U.S. citizens.

Despite the use of technical jargon, Snowden makes it easy for those of us who are not as tech savvy to grasp the severity of what is happening behind NSA curtains. Citizenfour is as intriguing as it is horrifying as Snowden risks his own freedom and safety to expose those who may attempt to limit ours.

Whistle-blowers have been a popular topic in the past couple of years. In 2013 the film The Fifth Estate came out, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange. It was intended to tell the story of Assange and Wikileaks, but failed to grab the public’s attention on the level it was hoping for.

By way of Snowden’s seemingly fearless demeanor in the face of possible incarceration for his defiance against an infringing government, Citizenfour puts us right in the middle of his harrowing fight for civil rights.

This film is the third in a trilogy directed by Poitras. The first film, My Country, My Country, which focuses on how life was for Iraqis while under U.S. occupation, was nominated for an Academy Award. The second film, The Oath, was about two Yemeni men who get caught up in the War on Terror. The Oath won the Excellence in Cinematography Award for U.S. Documentary in 2010 at the Sundance Film Festival. Citizenfour won the Academy Award in 2014 for Best Documentary Feature.