Citizenfour reminds us what a documentary might actually achieve — a patient visual record of the world: full of feeling, emotion, pregnant with fear and hope, quiet and invitational. The funny thing is that we are not used to this sort of documentary in general – our voracious appetite for familiar storylines, resonant and fulfilling endings – has rendered us less open to the world. This film invites us to return to a more humane way of observing; it offers vision that transcends these particular appetites and imagines a story both nuanced and unresolved.
The film measures personal risks (of Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney) against the dangers of confronting a banal pervasive evil — totalitarian surveillance. The characters in the film attempt to chart these policies, practices, collaborations and commitments and gradually a profile emerges: impersonal and self-protecting, diffused and under-articulated, omnipresent and invisible, aggressive and dispassionate.
In the end, I feel as if I have just watched an Origin Story for a new super-villain. But origin stories usually come after we have been assured about our endings and the mythologies that will follow. This prequel feels vastly unsettling and the ugliness that follows (we can tell) will be both subtle and overwhelming.