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Citizenfour Blu-ray Review

Citizenfour (2014) movie poster Citizenfour

Theatrical Release: October 24, 2014 / Running Time: 113 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Laura Poitras / Producers: Laura Poitras, Kirsten Johnson, Katy Scoggin, Trevor Paglen

Subjects: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Jacob Appelbaum, Ewen MacAskill, Jeremy Scahill, Julian Assange, Ladar Levison, Laura Poitras

Buy Citizenfour from Amazon.com: Blu-ray • DVD • Instant Video

The Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature has gone to a wide variety of films. Most of them can be described as films as having interest, whether the subject is wildlife (March of the Penguins), gun control (Bowling for Columbine),
or back-up singers (20 Feet from Stardom). There is no clear formula for winning the Oscar, but it certainly doesn't hurt to be timely and relevant.

Those two adjectives certainly apply to Citizenfour, which won 2014's Best Documentary honor last February. This eye-opening exposé presents the story of Edward Snowden, a CIA agent turned whistleblower. Snowden contacted a few journalists, including Glenn Greenwald, an American reporter for The Guardian based in Rio de Janeiro, Scotland's Ewen MacAskill, and Laura Poitras, a filmmaker who declares this the final chapter in her trilogy of documentaries about post-9/11 America.

The first installment of the trilogy -- 2006's My Country, My Country on the Iraq War -- was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar, but only wound up earning Poitras a place on a Watch List, bringing scrutiny from the American government with every visit in and out of the country. That treatment makes the director uniquely qualified to tell this story. While she is never seen and hardly heard, Poitras is a part of this story. She becomes that the moment that Snowden contacts her anonymously as "Citizenfour" and promises to reveal the shocking extent of the surveillance methods employed by the US National Security Administration (NSA).

In "Citizenfour", former CIA agent Edward Snowden shares evidence of far-reaching NSA surveillance of ordinary citizens.

Snowden's bombshells are a bit like those of WikiLeaks, the site founded by Julian Assange (who appears briefly here as an ally to Snowden) whose release of classified military documents made shockwaves throughout the world. Unless you are a political reporter, the secrets revealed never seemed as interesting as the fact that someone was revealing them. Snowden's disclosures are frightening and at odds with what multiple government officials have testified, but they're not unbelievable or as fascinating as the fact that Snowden, then a defense contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton, would sacrifice his career and freedom to disclose them.

Not yet 30, the unmarried man is never in doubt about his actions, but also fully aware about the consequences he faces. One grows nervous watching him speak to these hand-picked journalists on camera from a hotel room in Hong Kong. This film presents this story from its inception to its global news explosion. If All the President's Men were a documentary, it'd be like this. These incendiary efforts are dangerous and exciting. Snowden's reveals throw him into an Enemy of the State-type predicament and the scenarios presented in that 1998 Tony Scott-directed Will Smith action thriller are absolutely within the reach of powerful government agencies.

Rio-based American journalist Glenn Greenwald gives an impassioned speech in Portuguese at a Brazilian press conference.

Citizenfour is a bigger achievement in journalism than filmmaking, but an admirable and noteworthy endeavor in each field. Poitras keeps this material riveting and relatable.
She finds the right footage for context and meaning (e.g. Greenwald speaking at a press conference in fluent Portuguese, Obama declaring Snowden not a patriot) and even manages to make the encrypted text exchanges between herself and Snowden visually interesting and in the moment. The film does not really have a political bend. Its objections are not with Obama and his administration but with the near-limitless intrusion made possible by the Patriot Act signed in October 2001. And it is terrifying when you think about the virtual extinction of privacy.

The film will instill paranoia in all who watch it. Snowden's mention of having access to live feeds of drone attacks and casual acknowledgment of a standard issue hotel phone that is fitted with a chip to enabling recording generate chills. His concern with a hotel's smoke alarm test and reports of construction trucks outside his home are not the stuff of an imaginative screenwriter or a crackpot conspiracy theorist but of someone with first-hand knowledge of just how far the US government can reach.

A documentary with the power to move you more than most narrative features, Citizenfour is a no-brainer foundation for dramatization. Hollywood isn't wasting anytime waiting around for such an undertaking. Oliver Stone, no stranger to government controversies and criticisms, is directing and co-writing Snowden, a movie that will open on Christmas Day 2015, undoubtedly armed with some award season ambitions. Joseph Gordon-Levitt will play the titular figure, while Shailene Woodley will portray Snowden's longtime girlfriend, Zachary Quinto will play Greenwald, and Melissa Leo will put director Poitras on screen.

In the meantime, if you agree that truth is stranger than even modest fictionalization, you may be inclined not to wait for Stone's interpretation but to observe the real thing in Citizenfour, which is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Citizenfour Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.78:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English, English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: August 25, 2015
Suggested Retail Price: $26.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Blue Keepcase
Also available on DVD ($22.98 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

As a new documentary almost entirely concerned with the present, Citizenfour unsurprisingly looks terrific on Blu-ray. The 1.78:1 presentation (the case erroneously indicates a 2.39:1 aspect ratio) is sharp and spotless. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack also satisfies with its distributing of crisp dialogue and haunting score.

Glenn Greenwald looks through Snowden's leaked documents in this deleted scene. Hours before his February 2015 death, respected NY Times journalist David Carr hosted this TimesTalks panel on "Citizenfour."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray's all-HD extras begin with three deleted scenes (13:55), which see Snowden detailing an unethical undercover CIA courting of a Swiss banker and discussing his work at greater length, plus Greenwald going through disclosed documents in Rio.

Next up is an hour-long New York Times "TimesTalks" panel (1:00:02) in which Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and Snowden (via live video satellite) talk with Times reporter David Carr, who died later this day, at The New School. It's an enlightening conversation which benefits from all four points of view.

Dennis Lim questions director Laura Poitras at the New York Film Festival's Film Society Lincoln Center event. Former NSA bigwig William Binney describes having guns pointed at him in an FBI raid in Laura Poitras' New York Times op-doc "The Program."

A Film Society Lincoln Center Q & A (28:22) from last fall's New York Film Festival sees Dennis Lim interviewing director Laura Poitras about the film,

after she acknowledges people present and those who helped her realize the film. Eventually, the floor is opened to the public paying the festival's high ticket prices.

Last but not least comes "The Program" (8:36), an "op-doc" Poitras made for The New York Times. In it, former NSA cryptologist William Binney, featured in the film, chats with famed fellow whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, speaks at DEF CON about the government's invasive security protocols, and describes the FBI's 2007 raid on his home.

The disc opens with trailers for college sexual assault documentary The Hunting Ground, The Unknown, and The Great Invisible. These aren't accessibly by menu and Citizenfour's own trailer is not included.

The menu loops a montage of clips over a listings bar. Though the disc does not allow you to set bookmarks, it gladly does resume unfinished playback of the film.

No inserts are found inside the unslipcovered keepcase.

In the powerful finale to "Citizenfour", Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald resort to writing notes on paper back and forth to avoid being recorded.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

News-making subject matter grants Citizenfour instant significance, but the film succeeds not just for what it captures but the bold and interesting way it presents history in the making. Whether it's simply a confirmation of your fears or a shocking awakening into the diminshment of privacy, this paranoia-instilling film is must-see cinema, even if you only average about one documentary a year.

The high quality audio/video and substantial bonus features only add further value to this notable Blu-ray release.

Buy Citizenfour from Amazon.com: Blu-ray / DVD / Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
Best Documentary Oscar Winners: 20 Feet from Stardom • Searching for Sugarman • Undefeated • Woodstock
New to Blu-ray: Two Days, One Night • The Runner • Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Enemy of the State • The Fifth Estate • The Conversation • Salvador • The Interview
Documentaries: The Imposter • The Unknown Known • Fed Up • Chasing Ice

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Reviewed August 28, 2015.



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