The Documentary ‘Citizenfour’ Raises Political Questions
LOS ANGELES — Early in Laura Poitras’s documentary “Citizenfour,” Edward J. Snowden, who exposed vast electronic surveillance by the United States government, tells what pushed him to go public.
“As I saw the promise of the Obama administration betrayed, and walked away from,” says Mr. Snowden, referring to drone strikes and invasive monitoring by the National Security Agency, “it really hardened me to action.”
But do some of President Obama’s staunch Hollywood supporters share his sentiment?
Her provocative, and deeply admiring, look at Mr. Snowden — which had its premiere at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 10 — arrived here this week amid high hopes, intense curiosity and more than a few raised eyebrows over its sharp critique of Mr. Obama, a president who has enjoyed strong support in the movie world.
The intrigue is especially pitched because several of the companies behind “Citizenfour” — which takes issue with Mr. Obama’s expansion of Bush-era surveillance, and his administration’s attempt to prosecute Mr. Snowden for espionage — are led by some of the president’s close political allies.
They include Harvey Weinstein, the Weinstein Company’s co-chairman, as well as Jeff Skoll, the founder of Participant Media, and Richard Plepler, the chief executive of HBO, who all have been major contributors to Mr. Obama’s political campaigns.
“Citizenfour” has already landed high on the handicappers’ lists of prospects for a documentary features Oscar. The film also promises to jolt the award season with a dose of real-world politics, as happened in 2012, when Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” and Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” the year’s best picture, converged on Washington, with screenings, receptions and a Congressional uproar over the portrayal of torture by Americans in Ms. Bigelow’s film, which was about the hunting down of Osama bin Laden.
The role that Mr. Weinstein, whose Radius-TWC unit is backing the film (and distributed last year’s Oscar-winning documentary “Twenty Feet From Stardom”), will play in promoting “Citizenfour” remains unclear. In the past, he has not shied from using his association with Mr. Obama to promote issues-oriented movies. These include the biopic “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” which had a much-publicized White House screening last year, and the documentary “Bully,” which was screened for Mr. Obama in 2012, just minutes after he announced his support for a pair of anti-bullying bills.
Also in 2012, Mr. Weinstein arranged a high-profile Washington showing of his “SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden,” raising complaints that its flattering portrayal of Mr. Obama — who was edited into the film before its election-week premiere — amounted to a campaign stunt.
On Tuesday, it was the Radius-TWC co-presidents, Jason Janego and Tom Quinn, and not Mr. Weinstein, who played host as Ms. Poitras introduced “Citizenfour” to film buffs and some potential Oscar voters at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
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“The film is certainly about the danger of N.S.A. surveillance, but it’s also really about courage,” Ms. Poitras said. (The movie’s title comes from Mr. Snowden’s self-designated code name when he began communicating with Ms. Poitras.)
In a later phone interview, Mr. Quinn and Mr. Janego said they had exercised considerable autonomy in acquiring rights to “Citizenfour” after Mr. Quinn visited Ms. Poitras to discuss the unfinished film at her home in Berlin. Both stressed that Mr. Weinstein and his brother, Bob, co-chairmen of the parent company, were not a driving force in the decision to distribute the film, which is to open on Friday in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington.
“We did not see the actual film until very late in the process,” Mr. Quinn added.
Promotional screenings and talks are likely among the tech crowd in San Francisco and among political types in Washington, but scheduling has been hampered by that late delivery, he said.
The potential power in “Citizenfour” lies less in its revelations — though its ending points to the existence of another, as yet unidentified, government-surveillance whistle-blower — than in its intimacy and attempt to make narrative sense of the disclosures by Mr. Snowden, a former N.S.A. contractor.
At the film’s core are startlingly close encounters with Mr. Snowden, shot during eight days in a Hong Kong hotel room in 2013, as he began revealing secrets of the N.S.A. to the journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, and wrestled with the implications of his leaks. At one point, in nearly silent pantomime, he reshapes his beard and restyles his hair, preparing to slip from the hotel and eventually seek refuge in Russia.
The footage of Mr. Snowden is framed against shots of Mr. Obama and members of his administration, first denying the existence of domestic surveillance, then promising a review of programs, and finally insisting on Mr. Snowden’s prosecution.
In the Oscar race for best documentary, “Citizenfour” is likely to find itself up against some less volatile documentaries. Among those are “Red Army,” about Soviet hockey stars; “Life Itself,” about the film critic Roger Ebert; and “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” about the predations of a serial killer in South Los Angeles.
But “Citizenfour” recalls a different political dynamic, in 2004, when Mr. Weinstein introduced Michael Moore’s anti-Bush “Fahrenheit 9/11” at the Beverly Hills headquarters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a personal tribute to Mr. Moore. The two received a roaring ovation from like-minded Academy members.
But “Fahrenheit 9/11” won no Oscars. It was ruled out of the race when Mr. Moore chose to air it on pay-per-view television shortly before the presidential election.
This time around, though, some key voices are quieter.
Mr. Plepler, whose top documentary executive, Sheila Nevins, is an executive producer of “Citizenfour,” has not yet seen the movie, an HBO spokesman said. Mr. Skoll, through a Participant Media spokeswoman, declined to comment when asked whether he had concerns about the film’s view of Mr. Obama. In an email, referring to Mr. Quinn and Mr. Janego, of Radius-TWC, Mr. Weinstein said: “This is Tom and Jason’s show. They have autonomy, and it’s all their call.”
Mr. Janego, on Wednesday, asserted that Ms. Poitras’s cinéma vérité approach leaves a comfort zone for both those who support Mr. Snowden and those who find his actions offensive. “You’re left to make up your own mind,” he said.