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Message From Documentary 'Citizenfour': Be Afraid (Of Surveillance)


A new documentary, "Citizenfour" takes us, the audience, inside one of the biggest new stories of the past few years. Kenneth Turan has this view.

KENNETH TURAN, BYLINE: Be afraid. Be very afraid. That's the message of "Citizenfour," the new documentary on Edward Snowden and his decision to blow the whistle on the National Security Agency and its ravenous appetite for collecting the personal data of ordinary citizens. If left unchecked, filmmaker Laura Poitras convincingly posits this could mean the end of privacy as we know it. Because Poitras was among the first people Snowden contacted and because she was closely involved, this is first and foremost an advocacy documentary, with a compelling you-are-there quality. Here is Poitras reading from one of the first emails she got from Snowden.


LAURA POITRAS: (Reading) I am a senior government employee in the intelligence community. I hope you understand that contacting you is extremely high risk. For now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, site you visit and subject line you type is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited, but whose safeguards are not.

TURAN: One of the fascinations of "Citizenfour" is the intimate glimpse it gives us of Snowden, whose slight frame and boyish looks come as something of a shock. Yet the more we see of him, the more we understand the linked idealism and zealotry that must have motivated his actions. If "Citizenfour" has a flaw, it's that the length and intense focus of these compelling hotel room scenes unbalances the film. These sequences do not blend seamlessly with the rest of the material, giving the documentary a disjointed feeling. Carping about "Citizenfour," however, feels beside the point. The film provides a service in detailing what the consequences of the NSA's actions are. Poitras dedicates the film to those who make great sacrifices to expose injustice. And she may belong on that list. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition, as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. He has been a staff writer for the Washington Post and TV Guide, and served as the Times' book review editor.