The Oscar’s best doc proves notoriety beats artistry

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

RPL Film Theatre
March 11-15
2 out of 5

This year’s Academy Awards’ Best Documentary race was full of worthy contenders: The visually enthralling The Salt of the Earth; Virunga, the fascinating story of park rangers in the Congo (available in Netflix); the pursuit of a reclusive master photographer in Finding Vivian Maier; and the historically captivating saga Last Days in Vietnam. I could also name at least 10 other flicks that should’ve made it into the short list.

Yet, from early on, we all knew none of those titles had any chance.

Thanks to the notoriety of its subject, Citizenfour rode a wave of accolades all the way to the Oscars, despite having limited artistic merit, little storytelling sense and a cinematography so poor it’s hard to watch. Also, it’s boring for those familiar with the story (i.e. anybody who follows the news).

A brief recap of the Edward Snowden saga: In 2013, Snowden — then an NSA contractor — leaked a number of documents that revealed the U.S. National Security Agency was behind a series of global surveillance programs.

Aware that he could be deemed a spy or even a traitor by the American government, Snowden went on the run — first to Hong Kong and then to Russia, where he currently lives.

More than the wiretapping and the subject himself, Citizenfour documents the unfolding of Snowden’s plan. Director Laura Poitras was involved in the unveiling of classified information from the beginning (Snowden was aware of Poitras’ work on monitoring programs and summoned her): he clued her and a couple of journalists in and invite them to meet him in Hong Kong.

Most of the testimonies of Snowden known today comes from that visit.

Then again it’s a compelling story. In all fairness, if Snowden had asked me to record his actions, I would probably be nursing a golden statuette right now.

There’s practically no merit in Poitras work, outside of being handpicked for her previous efforts.

Citizenfour contains precious little new information (most had been revealed already by the other two reporters involved, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill.) Instead, there‘s a lot of the documentary filmmaker tooting her own horn, shoehorning footage of a failed project into the film to save face.

If nothing else (and after weeding out a lot of repetitive info and self-congratulatory blather), we are left with a better idea of who Edward Snowden is, if not a very comprehensive one. The analyst seems to be two steps ahead of everyone else. True, he lives in exile now, but successfully avoided extradition and the media. Snowden unloaded tremendously incriminating material and the NSA took several days to figure out who did it.

He also comes across as frosty cold: The informer left his girlfriend behind to deal with the aftermath of his actions without as much as a heads-up. That’s far more treasonous than the whistleblowing itself.

So here is a heads-up to all tattletales: make sure to have someone good recording your efforts. You may be up for an Oscar next year.