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Davidson writes: "'Thank you to Edward Snowden for his courage,' Laura Poitras, the director of 'Citizenfour,' said as she accepted the Oscar for best documentary."

Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald at the Academy Awards. (photo:  John Shearer/Invision/AP)
Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald at the Academy Awards. (photo: John Shearer/Invision/AP)


ALSO SEE: Edward Snowden Documentary Citizenfour Wins Oscar

Why "Citizenfour" Deserved Its Oscar

By Amy Davidson, The New Yorker

23 February 15

 

A statement by Edward Snowden about CitizenFour's Oscar win last night: "When Laura Poitras asked me if she could film our encounters, I was extremely reluctant. I'm grateful that I allowed her to persuade me. The result is a brave and brilliant film that deserves the honor and recognition it has received. My hope is that this award will encourage more people to see the film and be inspired by its message that ordinary citizens, working together, can change the world." Edward Snowden, ACLU.org

 

hank you to Edward Snowden for his courage,” Laura Poitras, the director of “Citizenfour,” said as she accepted the Oscar for best documentary. Neil Patrick Harris, the award show’s host, noted that Snowden couldn’t be there “for some treason.” Treason isn’t one of the crimes Snowden has been charged with—the government wants to prosecute him under the Espionage Act—but both the praise and the joke point to why this Snowden Oscar mattered. What he did was useful, and dangerous.

That wouldn’t have been enough if the movie were bad. But “Citizenfour” is worth watching, as well as celebrating. One still has to ask where the cinematic romance is. At the Oscars, an answer was provided by the young woman onstage with Poitras: Lindsay Mills, the woman whom Snowden at first left behind when he left his job and everything else for a hotel room in Hong Kong. One of the minor revelations of “Citizenfour” was that Mills had joined him in Moscow.

“Just walk me through it,” Glenn Greenwald tells Edward Snowden, in that Hong Kong hotel room. The guidance Greenwald and his colleagues look for is of three distinct kinds: How do you keep secrets? Why would Snowden tell secrets? And what has the government been hiding?

The first is the most one-sided. Greenwald, as the narration delicately makes clear, initially can’t figure out or can’t be bothered to set up the encrypted line of communication needed to satisfy the mysterious source who e-mails him—this is why Snowden turns to Laura Poitras, who knows exactly what he’s talking about when he asks, in their first exchanges, about her public keys. (George Packer wrote a Profile of Poitras for The New Yorker.) Snowden shows Greenwald how to do it (“It seems hard, but it’s not—this is super-easy”), and why he should. Here is one of the practical, paradoxical gifts of the Snowden affair: don’t give up on the idea that your words can be secret, at least slightly more secret than is convenient for companies or spies. If you are a little disciplined, you can be freer. There is a lovely shot of Greenwald’s face when Snowden, who is about to enter a password, asks for his “magic mantle of power,” a red sweatshirt, and pulls it over his head, as if he were a man running in the rain, or a teen-ager with a flashlight under his blankets. Looking at him, Greenwald, whom we’ve already encountered as a big talker, is, for a moment, only quiet and curious, with barely a flicker in his expression before he asks, “Is that about the possibility of—overhead?” Greenwald adds that nothing will surprise him anymore. His tone in that instant is one that the film, for all the scenes with angry activists, ultimately shares, and why the film works—neither titillated nor portentous, and just abashed enough to keep its importance from becoming self-importance.

Narcissism is the charge that’s thrown at Snowden—that he thinks he gets to decide what’s secret. His character, or, rather, his motivation for leaking, is the second puzzle for Greenwald and for Ewen MacAskill, the Guardian reporter also in the hotel room. Here, it is MacAskill’s face that is revealing. Greenwald seems sure of what category to put Snowden in, once he is persuaded that the leak is for real and the information is good. (“The fearlessness and the ‘fuck you’ to, like, the bullying tactics has got to be completely pervading everything we do.”) MacAskill, though, begins by telling Snowden that he doesn’t know anything about him; when Snowden starts talking about the N.S.A.’s relation to Booz Allen Hamilton, his on-paper employer, MacAskill stops him: “So, I don’t know your name.” He takes notes; his glances, when he looks up from writing in the scenes that follow, suggest a skeptic’s trust being earned.

The journalists’ relationship to Snowden opens up other sets of questions: What obligations do reporters have to their sources? The legal jeopardy in which James Risen, of the Times, found himself when the government moved to prosecute Jeffrey Sterling, a C.I.A. employee who it argued was Risen’s source, outraged journalists. And rightly so: the Obama Administration, in going after leakers, has pioneered the use of inappropriate legal instruments like the Espionage Act of 1917, which was also used to charge Snowden. (Ben Wizner, of the A.C.L.U., offers a good primer on the Espionage Act in a scene in “Citizenfour,” in which a group of lawyers meet in Berlin; Wizner also says that their phones should go in the refrigerator while they talk, which is funny but not a joke, the opposite of Neil Patrick Harris’s “some treason” line). The government ultimately decided not to jail Risen, but Sterling was convicted last month, and will be sentenced in April. Last week, after Attorney General Eric Holder bragged about the Administration’s press-freedom legacy, Risen went on what was variously called an “epic” or “vitriolic” “Twitter rant.” (“I plan to spend the rest of my life fighting to undo damage done to press freedom in the United States by Barack Obama and Eric Holder.”) Margaret Sullivan, the Times’s public editor, wrote that it was actually a pretty reasonable statement of journalistic principles: “Maybe the tenor of Mr. Risen’s tweets wasn’t very Timesian. But the insistence on truth-telling and challenging the powerful is exactly what the Times ought to stand for. Always.” The sense that intemperance can be publicly useful is one of Snowden’s legacies, and Poitras’s film captures it.

In “Citizenfour,” Snowden has a lot to say for the notebook, blog, and camera. He is pronouncing sentences that he seems to have rehearsed in his mind for months or years. He is a guide in the third area that needs to be charted: What is in these documents, and what does all their technical language mean? The danger here, given the number of documents, is that the film could become one big PowerPoint presentation—“just walk me through.” Mostly, Poitras avoids that, once the film gets past the first fifteen minutes. She sketches some programs, offers a route into others, and adds in long shots of things that are not only on paper or in code: an N.S.A. building under construction in Utah, the spot on the British coast where cables disappear under water. There is enough here to make a person better-prepared, later this year, when the authorization for the N.S.A.’s phone-metadata program is set to expire. President Obama’s comment on the matter—“No, I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot”—feels badly off base. The President sounds petty when he insists that he was on top of this without any help from Snowden.

What the country still has to work out is whether the Snowden documents were simply revealing or actually transformative. That’s the question about a good movie, too, though one shouldn’t underestimate the value of revelation, or truth, alone. Snowden has his silent moments. There is a scene, when he is getting ready to sneak out of the hotel in Hong Kong, after he has revealed himself, in which he stands in front of a mirror. Wearing a black shirt, he has put in contact lenses, shaved (after debating the amount of stubble that will make him look least like the pictures now playing on television), and, with a handful of foam, tries to slick back his hair. Watching it again on Oscar weekend, one thinks of Poitras and her team, and all the other filmmakers and actors, getting ready to step out. Snowden tries, and expects, to look different. When he sees that he doesn’t—his hair won’t stay down—he crumples a little, and looks as scared as anyone. There is no magic mantle of power. But outside the hotel room, things really did change.


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-23 # neohip 2015-02-23 15:16
Everyone would have been better served if they had refused the Oscar.
 
 
+26 # John Escher 2015-02-23 15:59
Maybe you don't understand how the underground works.

Such refusal would just push them further down into obscurity.

When the U.S. Government opposes you, you are underground.Quoting neohip:
Everyone would have been better served if they had refused the Oscar.
 
 
+8 # jcdav 2015-02-24 08:18
Happily, this resurfaced the issue...citizen s need to be reminded o what their government is doing TO THEM.
 
 
-1 # neohip 2015-02-24 09:08
Don't misunderstand me, I am happy they won. Their work is extremely important and their courage deserves all of our recognition. I just happen to feel they would have made a deeper statement if they had refused the Oscar.
 
 
+11 # John Escher 2015-02-23 15:44
I can't wait to see this. In the general context provided here and elsewhere, however, Speaker Boehner is the stupidest person in American politics. Ted Cruz is second most stupid. President Obama is not even third, although in Jefferson's precept of the necessity for free press in a balanced democracy he qualifies for utmost condemnation and derision which goes deeper than being "petty" and "off base."

That negative judgment simply isn't strong enough.

The other area in which the president fails is his adman's vapid support of the military and drones and mindless, eternal war.

In most other issues he is a good man, including health care, but the first two strikes outlined here don't leave him with much wiggle room for his "legacy."

The idea of presidential legacy of course should be abolished. People other than the criminal get to decide who is a criminal and who not.
 
 
+10 # Jayceecool 2015-02-23 22:43
What could be more obvious? Our government supports eternal war for many reasons, but perhaps foremost because it can clamp down in the name of national security.
 
 
-3 # davehaze 2015-02-24 13:24
Quoting neohip:
Everyone would have been better served if they had refused the Oscar.

Maybe everyone would be better served if you stop posting on RSN.
 
 
+1 # ronnewmexico 2015-02-24 23:18
Maybe this is why the left even though they are correct in their assumptions of about most all things..always looses the day and fight about 99% of the time….the ideas are attached to people who are quite quite revolting and vile who cannot accept others points of view nor perspective.

That said I agree with neohip..if they had taken advantage of live TV gone on stage and stated we will refuse to accept this oscar until such time as Edward Snowden is no longer hunted…..

A firestorm would have occured which would have added significance to a other wise insignificant piece of crap media event, the oscars.

It would have been a very very dangerous thing to do…I can not say I would have the courage to say it….but it would have had impact…real impact. That thing is broadcast worldwide.

Continue on…I guess I now will be asked not to post here..
Oh well.

As I read it the treason comment was not just a joke. It was a comment to pander to the right..OK we are giving you a oscar, but we also mention you what you have done is treason…..If not said, it would be another thousand comments on hollywood being the home of liberal elitists…not paying special tribute to Joan Rivers... have them up in arms already, even though her movie credentials were about zero. But her support of the government of Israel's facism was 100%.
but that's just me.

And silly me…I forget I am not allowed to pose a opposeing view here now…..go figure. I will like neohip…be asked not to post.
 
 
0 # John S. Browne 2015-02-28 03:03
#

Belated congrats to Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, and last but definitely not least Edward Snowden! It took a great deal of courage on the part of the Academy and Hollywood to give the Academy Award for this documentary; so congratulations to them, too! This, along with all of the other many awards that this great documentary has received, is a wonderful tribute to it; and, most important, to the truth, to transparency, to privacy, and to True Liberty and Freedom! Congrats to all!

#
 

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