Thursday, August 27, 2015

Four's Score

Citizenfour was last year's Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature -- and while the Academy never reveals actual vote totals, the feeling from the commentators seemed to be that this must have been a landslide win. But now that I've watched the documentary, I feel that people were voting for the subject matter, not the movie itself.

Citizenfour chronicles the leak of the NSA spy scandal by Edward Snowden. It's distinctive in that director Laura Poitras didn't actually seek out her subject. Having previously made two other documentaries on the abuse of government power, she was actually one of Snowden's first journalist contacts in releasing his information. Thus, Poitras isn't trying to tell the story after the fact -- her film is a documentary in the most literal sense, documenting the actual events as they unfolded.

The resulting film really makes you feel like you're there for actual Important History taking place. Sadly, this story may not be that important in the grand scheme of things, since people seem alarmingly unconcerned at the unlawful invasion of privacy. (And on his HBO show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver memorably demonstrated how few people actually know who Edward Snowden is or what he did.) Still, it feels like someone is showing you previously unknown footage of say, Chuck Yeager in his cockpit as he broke the sound barrier. It's instantly compelling to look behind the scenes like this.

But "right place, right time" seems to be the one big thing the movie has going for it. As an expose of what Edward Snowden leaked, and what the NSA was doing, it feels surprisingly light. Seeing this movie probably wouldn't inflame someone's passions about the issue of privacy; it's for those "already inside the tent." It also feels quite loosely paced. It's like we're watching the unedited video account of what happened, and there are times you really want to fast forward to "the good parts."

Different people have different opinions of Edward Snowden. But if you take him at his word (and I for one do), he never wanted this story to be about him. He wanted the focus to be on the NSA's overreach, not the man who exposed it. Unfortunately, the movie feels like it's exactly what he didn't want. Because it's light on the details, and because it's not tightly edited, you inevitably end up thinking about the man and not the story. The film even encourages this, with long and unnecessary scenes of Snowden in his hotel room -- shaving, staring out the window, doing generally nothing. It's silently demanding that the audience contemplate the man behind the news. (I mean, look at the poster!)

In the end, Citizenfour is like many non-documentary films: a compelling story in need of better editing. I can't believe it was truly the most deserving documentary in the Oscar race. "Important" as it may be, I give it a C.

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