Laura Poitras, Citizenfour, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 114 minutes. Edward J. Snowden.

LAURA POITRAS’S CITIZENFOUR is an electrifying countdown to an epoch-altering event, unfolding in an antiseptic all-white room. Poitras had been working for at least a year on a documentary about the surveillance state—the final installment of her trilogy on the US post-9/11—when she began receiving, in January 2013, encrypted e-mails from someone who warned, “Assume your adversaries are capable of one trillion guesses per second.” Her correspondent signed off as “Citizenfour,” the alias of Edward J. Snowden, whom Poitras, along with journalist Glenn Greenwald, would meet in the mall of the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong on June 3, 2013. To watch the footage Poitras shot for the next week of Snowden in his cramped quarters at the Mira—incidents that constitute the middle of Citizenfour and make up roughly half its 114 minutes—is to have the extraordinary, dizzying experience of witnessing a man in the final moments of his anonymity before he changed the course of history and, in the process, became this country’s most wanted fugitive.

According to George Packer’s profile of Poitras in the current issue of the New Yorker, the director “filmed Snowden for some twenty hours” at the Mira—footage that I wish I could see every second of. Despite Snowden’s insistence early on that he’s “not the story,” it’s difficult not to be transfixed by every detail, no matter how seemingly banal, revealed in Citizenfour about this slight, pale, twenty-nine-year-old (“I go by Ed”); in the forty-eight hours since I’ve seen the documentary, I haven’t been able to shake the image of the small birthmark on the underside of Snowden’s right arm or his long nails as he types on his laptop while seated on a rumpled chalk-colored duvet. Abundantly on display here, Snowden’s preternatural calm and his speech-filler-less eloquence in explaining his decision to leak a trove of damning NSA documents will be familiar to anyone who watched the Poitras-shot twelve-and-a-half-minute video of the whistleblower that was posted on The Guardian’s website on June 9, 2013, the day his identity was revealed. (In Citizenfour, we see what essentially amounts to a dress rehearsal for this momentous clip.) When his equanimity breaks, however slightly—he softly mutters goddammit when his close-cropped hair, despite multiple squirts of gel, won’t behave as he tries to alter his appearance before leaving his hotel room—the moment has a seismic effect, underscoring this young guy’s inconceivable vulnerability.

In singling out this section of Citizenfour, I don’t mean to discount what precedes or follows it. Before the Snowden scenes, we are introduced to other vital activists and experts who have been speaking out against the government’s breaches of privacy for years, including William Binney, who resigned from the NSA in October 2001 after more than three decades of service at the agency. The post–Mira Hotel portion of Poitras’s documentary includes a number of equally revelatory moments, including one shot taken, at some distance, this past July showing Snowden and his girlfriend, whom he had last seen in May 2013, cooking dinner at his home in Moscow, where he has been living at an undisclosed location since fleeing Hong Kong. By virtue of Citizenfour’s comprehensiveness, Poitras, whose reporting on the NSA, along with that of Greenwald and two other journalists, received the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, honors Snowden’s emphasis that he’s “not the story”—or at least not all of it. Taking us into that Hong Kong hotel room during that pivotal week, Poitras unforgettably shows us why Snowden was motivated to act: his belief that anyone, anywhere with a cellphone or an Internet connection was unwittingly—and illegally—the story.

Melissa Anderson

Citizenfour, which made its world premiere at the 52nd New York Film Festival on October 10, opens in New York and Los Angeles on October 24.