Snowden Film ‘Citizenfour’ Wins Oscar for Best Documentary

The fugitive leaker’s globetrotting escapades are now officially part of Hollywood lore.

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Dustin Volz
Feb. 22, 2015, 5:51 p.m.

Cit­izen­four, a film chron­ic­ling the liv­ing his­tory of Ed­ward Snowden’s un­pre­ced­en­ted heist of U.S. gov­ern­ment secrets, won the Academy Award for best doc­u­ment­ary Sunday night — an un­usu­al feat for a movie so crit­ic­al of a sit­ting pres­id­ent’s policies.

Dir­ec­ted by Laura Poitras, the polit­ic­al thrill­er cap­tures Snowden in a claus­tro­phobic Hong Kong hotel room in the days lead­ing up to and after the re­lease of the first of batch of clas­si­fied doc­u­ments that pub­licly re­vealed the sweep­ing scope of the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s mass sur­veil­lance of phone and In­ter­net com­mu­nic­a­tions.

“The dis­clos­ures that Ed­ward Snowden re­vealed don’t only ex­pose a threat to our pri­vacy but to our demo­cracy it­self,” Poitras, who also co-pro­duced the film, said dur­ing her ac­cept­ance speech. “When the most im­port­ant de­cisions be­ing made af­fect­ing all of us are made in secret, we lose our abil­ity to check the powers that con­trol.”

In a state­ment provided by the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on, Snowden ap­plauded Poitras and the movie as “a brave and bril­liant film that de­serves the hon­or and re­cog­ni­tion it has re­ceived.”

Snowden, who lives in Rus­sia un­der asylum, ad­ded, “My hope is that this award will en­cour­age more people to see the film and be in­spired by its mes­sage that or­din­ary cit­izens, work­ing to­geth­er, can change the world.”

The award serves as a test­a­ment to the con­tin­ued cul­tur­al and polit­ic­al rel­ev­ance of the Snowden leaks, which began in June 2013 and con­tin­ue to drip out even today. Last week, The In­ter­cept pub­lished new Snowden doc­u­ments de­tail­ing a joint op­er­a­tion in which Amer­ic­an and Brit­ish spies hacked in­to a Dutch SIM-card man­u­fac­turer and stole mil­lions of cell-phone en­cryp­tion keys.

Snowden sup­port­ers will likely seize on the award as fur­ther val­id­a­tion that his ac­tions — which some politi­cians con­tin­ue to claim were treas­on­ous and un­der­mined na­tion­al se­cur­ity — were jus­ti­fied. The win also amounts to a ta­cit re­buke by Hol­ly­wood of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s civil-liber­ties re­cord, a sens­it­ive is­sue for an in­dustry that was once dogged by ac­cus­a­tions of com­mun­ist sym­path­ies dur­ing the Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s.

“Ed­ward Snowden could not be here for some treas­on,” Oscar host Neil Patrick Har­ris jok­ingly quipped after the award was giv­en.

Cit­izen­four also has suc­ceeded where oth­er doc­u­ment­ar­ies crit­ic­al of a sit­ting pres­id­ent have come up short. Mi­chael Moore’s Fahren­heit 9/11, which sharply ri­diculed George W. Bush and the Ir­aq War, failed to earn a best doc­u­ment­ary nom­in­a­tion in 2005, des­pite con­sid­er­able at­ten­tion and box-of­fice suc­cess.

Cit­izen­four is the fi­nal in­stall­ment of a tri­logy of films by Poitras that ex­am­ine the post-9/11 ten­sion between pri­vacy and se­cur­ity dur­ing the Bush and Obama ad­min­is­tra­tions. Though it doc­u­ments in real time how Snowden or­ches­trated with Poitras and journ­al­ist Glenn Gre­en­wald the re­lease of gov­ern­ment secrets that shocked a na­tion, the film is at its core a char­ac­ter study of a 29-year-old com­puter tech­ni­cian who felt com­pelled to risk his safety in or­der to leak a massive trove of clas­si­fied secrets.

“The film isn’t try­ing to break news,” Poitras told Na­tion­al Journ­al last fall after Cit­izen­four‘s world premiere in New York. “It’s really a story about people, and what hap­pens when people make per­son­al sac­ri­fice to ex­pose what they think is wrong­do­ing.”

Poitras cur­rently lives in Ber­lin and has said she does not feel she could con­tin­ue her work if she re­mained in the United States. She was ap­par­ently placed on the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment’s ter­ror watch list and was re­peatedly de­tained at air­ports in the years after the Septem­ber 11 at­tacks.

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