Last year at the Oscars, I thought The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s innovative examination of mass killings in Indonesia during the 1960s, deserved to win for best feature documentary. Instead, the Academy gave the award to to a film with broader appeal, 20 Feet From Stardom, a review of life as a background singer on pop records. At the time, a friend quipped, “20 Feet From Politics.” This year, however, the Academy didn’t shy away from awarding a nakedly political film: Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, a stunning vérité account of the initial reporting on Edward Snowden’s leak of secret material about the National Security Agency, took home the biggest documentary prize of the year.
While, to my mind, The Act of Killing may have deserved to win, Citizenfour’s victory was more necessary. No matter its reverberations in today’s Indonesia and despite the sheer artistry of the story’s presentation, a film ultimately about history cannot take precedence, in a political sense, over one telling us precisely where the most powerful nation in the history of the world is going astray—on a crash course with the very foundations of hundreds of years of liberal, democratic progress. And that’s just what Citizenfour does. The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott might’ve put it best, calling the film “a primal political fable for the digital age, a real-time tableau of the confrontation between the individual and the state.”
The stakes are established early on the film, when Poitras’s voice reads aloud an e-mail she received from Snowden towards the beginning of their conversations: “From now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, article you write, site you visit, subject line you type is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not.”
In the course of the documentary, Poitras travels to Hong Kong with Glenn Greenwald to meet Snowden, who explains on camera who he is and what he is handing over to the journalists: a trove of documents detailing worldwide spying operations of the NSA and its partners. The challenge of exposing such information seems considerable, but Snowden handles it with an ease that betrays his intelligence and determination; he remains his own best spokesman. And that’s why more people, even if just a few at a time, need to see the film, something the Oscar win is sure to help accomplish.
Snowden himself could not have been more clear about understanding all of this in a statement he released shortly after the announcement of Citizenfour’s Oscar victory. “When Laura Poitras asked me if she could film our encounters, I was extremely reluctant. I’m grateful that I allowed her to persuade me,” Snowden said, via the ACLU. “My hope is that this award will encourage more people to see the film and be inspired by its message that ordinary citizens, working together, can change the world.” (Disclosures: Greenwald, a principal subject of Citizenfour, and Jeremy Scahill, a former contributor to The Nation who also appears in the film, are both personal friends. I am under contract with the site Greenwald, Scahill and Poitras started, The Intercept, for a forthcoming piece.)