In the last 16 months, the saga of Edward Snowden has played out so publicly that you might easily think we'd seen all there is to see — but you'd be wrong. While Greenwald has pieced out details from the leaks in the press, his NSA reporting partner Laura Poitras has been working on an equally monumental project, a documentary culled from hours of private footage of Snowden and Greenwald as they struggled with one of the most delicate and dangerous acts of journalism in living memory.
"It hardened me to action."
The film is called CitizenFour, and on Friday it made its world premiere at the New York Film Festival. It begins with Poitras's narration of one of her first messages from Snowden: "At this stage I can offer nothing more than my word," she reads. "I am a senior gov't employee in the intel community." He signs it with a pseudonym, CitizenFour.
What follows is a close look at how the leaks played out from within, following Snowden and Greenwald from the first meeting to more or less the present day. The film's not concerned with breaking news, but we get a new insight into Snowden's state of mind during the leaks and his decision to break with the NSA in such a powerful way. In one scene, he talks about the lo-res video feeds from US surveillance drones, which he could watch from his desk at the NSA. "It hardened me to action," Snowden says.
The most fascinating material comes from the eight days the trio spent in a Hong Kong hotel, hashing out the material for the first stories and the video that would ultimately reveal Snowden to the world. While he works with Greenwald on the documents, Snowden also struggles with the personal fallout from his abrupt flight from the US. He kept his plan secret from everyone in his life, telling his girlfriend only that he was going "on a work trip." After the first story goes out, she gets a visit from the NSA, and we see Snowden tear up on hearing the news. "It is an unusual feeling," he says later, looking out on the Hong Kong skyline, "not knowing what's going to happen in the next day, the next week."
"It's an unusual feeling, not knowing what's going to happen in the next day."
The rules of operational security are also constantly in play. After talking through some of the documents with Greenwald, we see Snowden wince as he realizes that the hotel room's VOIP phone has been plugged in the whole time. "They can hot-mic those," he tells Greenwald nervously. They unplug the phone, only to hear an unrelated fire alarm bell ring from the hallway a few minutes later, setting off a cascade of paranoia. Days later, once his face has been revealed in the now-famous video, we see real fear on Snowden's face as he prepares to finally leave the hotel room.
The biggest tease comes at the end, after Snowden has escaped to Moscow, when Greenwald fills Snowden in on a new story they're working on with a new source, handled by his First Look colleague Jeremy Scahill. He writes the important parts out on paper so they can't be surveilled, and Snowden says he's worried for the new source. Greenwald flashes some details — 1.2 million people on a watch list, a chain of command for drone strikes. (One assumes we'll see them show up in The Intercept before long.) Snowden seems shocked at the details; they're news even to him. Once the meeting is over, Greenwald tears up the papers and sweeps up the scraps. They'll have to stay secret for a little bit longer.