By Jessica Johanson-Kubin
“At this stage, I can offer nothing more than my word,” declares a cool voice. “I am a
senior government employee in the intelligence community…and contacting you is
extremely high risk.” Laura Poitras, the director of this film is reading
communications sent by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
While the content of these messages could stand on its own as a thrilling tale, the
film effortlessly frames it in such a way that the viewer gets to see the transition
between documentary, action flick, and even investigative journalism.
Going into the theater, I was expecting to learn a few things, be entertained, and
maybe even have reason to question the extent of the role of the U.S. government in
anti-terrorism efforts. However, after watching it, I was shocked to learn the extent
of the civilian monitoring. Poitras follows an 8 day interview with Snowden and
Guardian in a secret hotel room in Hong Kong as the truth about the NSA’s
monitoring program unfolds.
Anything can be intercepted and used to spy on citizens, we soon learn. Snowden
first seems quite paranoid as he types his password under a heavy blanket. He
unplugs his hotel phone because it can be used to listen in on private conversations.
But as the story advances and as Snowden discloses more and more, we see that his
fears are actually reasonable and well founded.
Surprisingly, Snowden appears to be a well socialized, normal man, if one who feels
like he and the rest of the U.S. citizens are being taken advantage of by the
government. He doesn’t want to be the center of attention, nor does he even want
the newspapers to mention his name until the story has broken. This shows his deep
commitment to the public interest and differentiates him from Julian Assange,
founder of Wikileaks, who enjoyed his fame and used his skills to garner personal
At one point, the hotel fire alarm goes off and the tension in the hotel room is
palpable, even through the screen. Snowden glances around the room uneasily and
declines to evacuate until he has confirmed with the front desk that the alarm is
legitimate. It turns out to have been a test. The tension fades, but the memory of it
remains etched in the minds of both the viewers and Snowden.
After the release of this movie, Poitras found herself on a Department of Homeland