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Citizenfour | Blu-Ray Review

citizen-blu-ray-coverHow do you make a riveting, chest tightening film out of the raw documentation of one of the most reported on watershed moments in the history of American whistle-blowing of which we already know the final outcome? Somehow Laura Poitras has constructed a stupendously taut thriller out of what is essentially an exclusive account of history in the making with Citizenfour, a film that was produced in secret, premiered at the New York Film Festival with the support of HBO and Radius-TWC and deservedly showered in awards, including the Academy Award for Best Documentary feature.

The film begins in the darkness of a tunnel with Poitras in voiceover, reading calmly, clearly, yet still in a hushed, ominous tone, the first anonymously sent encrypted contact she received from Edward Snowden, operating covertly at the time under the code name ‘Citizenfour’. He has access to incriminating government secrets. He believes the American public should know about them. He has made the decision to risk his personal freedom for the good of his country in an attempt to release these secrets to the press and he wants Poitras, who has been named as a target to watch on various classified internal secret lists, to help bring these secrets to light under the protection of journalism. It’s formally simple, but incredibly effective, as we know how this ends, but we don’t yet know exactly how we arrived here.

Nearly half of the remaining film is subsequently devoted to the world’s first interviews with Snowden, conducted in secret in an unnamed hotel in Hong Kong by investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian intelligence reporter Ewen MacAskill in June of 2013. The relatively young whistle-blower lays back in his bed, barefooted, dressed in a plain white t-shirt, surprisingly calm, and speaks articulately in a disarmingly empathetic manner, answering overwhelming and relatively horrifying inquiries about the NSA’s classified drone programs, endless secret watch-lists and flat out illegal surveillance of the unwitting American public. His mantra, “I am not the story.”

Over the course of several days, conversations continue while Greenwald and Poitras’ stories begin to hit the news wire, making instant headlines. Snowden watches his sacrifices bear fruit from his hotel room, increasingly worried about the impact his actions have left on his personal relationships, especially between he and his partner whom had no knowledge of his plans before meeting up with these journalists in Hong Kong. This tension is accentuated by Laura’s vérité encapulation, highlighting moments of increased paranoia, such as when a fire alarm randomly sounds, unexpected phone calls are made to their room or Snowden anxiously peers out his high-rise window half expecting to see NSA police and media vans parked just outside.

Having very little plan in place following the release of the NSA’s documents, the remainder of the film revolves around the personal aftermath of Snowden and the journalists’ actions. With the help of the United Nations and Julian Assange, Citizenfour is flown out of Hong Kong on June 21st, 2013, but his passport is cancelled by the United States in transit, so he is rerouted to Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow where he is subsequently stranded until August 1st, when the Russian government granted Snowden temporary asylum. He has been safely out of reach from the US since, Citizenfour on the other hand is now out in the wild and will remain an artistically brilliant, historically seminal piece of filmmaking for the foreseeable feature.

Disc Review:

Released with little hub-bub by Anchor Bay, Citizenfour arrives on Blu-ray with a gorgeous transfer with a perfectly capable audio track that relays the pivotal dialogue with ease. Not only that, but the disc is stacked with riveting, enlightening extras from lengthy conversations to supplementary shorts.

Deleted Scenes
Included here are three extra scenes that see Snowden speaking about ethical complications within the NSA and Greenwald venting about the effects of companies information being stolen within the borders of Brazil. 14 min

New York Times Talk with Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden and David Carr
Just prior to the passing of the beloved Times journalist David Carr, this remarkable conversation is a laid back examination of how the film came together and the political aftermath that followed. 60 min

Film Society of Lincoln Center Q&A with Laura Poitras
Following the second screening of the film at the New York Film Festival premiere, Dennis Lim hosts a conversation with Poitras that delves into the espionage beginnings of the project and more. 28 min

“The Program” – A New York Times Op-Doc by Laura Poitras
Published on August 23, 2012 as part of the ongoing Op-Docs program, this short was a sort of primer on the illegal practices of the NSA featuring former employee and current whistle-blower William Binney as he outlines the Stellar Wind domestic spying program. 9 min

Final Thoughts:

One would be hard pressed to find a more culturally critical cinematic work than Poitras’ risky, revealing film Citizenfour. Though its home video release went under the radar of most outlets thanks to Anchor Bay’s mediocre promotion, this is a must see film and if you missed it in theaters, now is your chance. Do so, ASAP.

Film Review: ★★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review:     ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

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