Any film festival worth your while ought to revive a chronically unsettled debate—what are movies good for?—and provide, if not new arguments about the subject, then at least fresh ways to restate the old ones. We all know that movies make a lot of money for a few people, provide a living for many, and help most of us pass the time—which is fine, as far as it goes. But beyond that, why should anyone care?
Toward its conclusion, this year’s New York Film Festival gave such an overpowering answer to that question, with the world premiere of Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, that it almost undid every other case the NYFF had been making. Faced with the urgency of this documentary about Edward Snowden, it was easy to forget, or dismiss, the apologetics for cinema that had been implicit in the festival’s other selections: appeals to joy, curiosity, fellow feeling, support for young artists and personal loyalty to older ones. I’ll get to those reasons for moviegoing and the examples that supported them this year. First, though, let me deal with the pressing issue of Poitras’s film, which is more than the record of a historic event. It is, in itself, one of the instruments of that history.
The bulk of Citizenfour consists of substantial excerpts from videos that Poitras shot in a room in the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong over the course of eight days in June 2013, when Snowden brought his evidence of pervasive surveillance by the National Security Agency to her, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill and decided, with their help, when and how to reveal his identity. For explanatory purposes, Citizenfour augments these scenes with a variety of other footage that Poitras has shot or assembled over the course of several years: hearings in Washington and Brasília, conferences in New York City, a courtroom scene in San Francisco, the construction site for the NSA’s new data center in Utah. These contextual materials serve what I might call, without prejudice, the film’s muckraking agenda. But then, a thousand newspaper articles and cable-news reports have already raked up most of the factual muck you find in Citizenfour. What more can a movie give you?
It can give you the experience, at once deeply serious and nervously exhilarating, of being locked in hiding with Snowden, from the moment before he takes his irrevocable step to the day he flees the hotel as an asylum-seeker. At its core, Citizenfour is a highly charged chamber drama (with plenty of gallows humor) combined with an intensive character study, which enables you to judge for yourself the clarity of purpose in Snowden’s bearing, the concern for the people closest to him, the respect for his own abilities and steady disregard for his own future, the progressive darkening of the circles around his eyes.
The character study (which has been Poitras’s basic genre to date, in My Country, My Country and The Oath) is necessary—the film is necessary—because the effort to distract people from the substance of Snowden’s revelations has consistently, and predictably, entailed an effort to disparage him as a person. Part of the drama you see in the hotel room concerns just that: Snowden’s coming to terms with the inevitability of his becoming a story in himself. And so, in effect, Citizenfour also falls into the category of the making-of documentary, taking you behind the scenes of the video that Poitras posted on The Guardian’s website on June 9, 2013, showing Snowden to the world.