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Film / Citizenfour

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Citizenfour is a 2014 documentary about the actions of Edward Snowden and the NSA spying scandal.

The film focuses on how Snowden began correspondence with director/documentarian Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald in order to leak information about illegal surveillance which Snowden obtained while working as a contractor for the NSA. The documentary takes place mostly in the Hong Kong hotel where the three meet over eight days to discuss the data and how best to reveal it to the world, and the repercussions of doing so.

Provides examples of:

  • Big Brother Is Watching: The data leaked by Snowden reveals just how easily and regularly the government can collect the personal information of anyone in the world.
  • Clark Kenting: Snowden hides his glasses to make himself less recognizable when he needs to leave the hotel when it is crawling with reporters.
  • Drone of Dread: An eerie, static-y noise appears whenever the US government is doing something sneaky like surrounding Edward Snowden's house (and his unsuspecting girlfriend) with "maintenance vans" shortly after Snowden's leaks hit the news or detaining one of the reporters' partners for nine hours at an airport under "national security".
  • Everything Is Online: To combat this, air-gapped computers (not connected to the Internet) are used to keep information from being hacked.
  • Hollywood Hacking: Averted since, as a private contractor, Snowden was given access to the data. When he realized the scope of the machine that was collecting the data and decided to expose it, he simply downloaded it.
  • Hydra Problem: Invoked by Snowden, but as a Hydra Solution.
    Snowden: You're not going to bully me into silence like you've done to everybody else. And if nobody else is gonna do it, I will. And hopefully, when I'm gone, whatever you do to me, there will be somebody else who'll do the same thing. It'll be the sort of internet principle, of the hydra; you can stomp one person, but there's gonna be seven more of us.
  • Incredibly Obvious Bug: So obvious it's not obvious, Snowden reveals that modern desk telephones are capable of being remotely turned into a "hot mic", allowing a person to eavesdrop on the room even when the receiver is hung up.
  • Leave the Camera Running: There are a lot of static shots, including scenes that are just a few minutes of Snowden typing.
  • Properly Paranoid: Snowden encrypts everything, and only establishes regular contact with Poitras anonymously, and then only after she can properly encrypt her messages. Considering the content of the data he is trying to share, this is shown to be utterly necessary.
  • Red Herring: The fire alarm goes off while the group is in the hotel. It turns out to only be a test, but Snowden has made everyone so paranoid that, for a moment, they wonder if it's really a coincidence.
  • Rubik's Cube: International Genius Symbol: Maybe invoking the trope, or just because they aren't that common, but Snowden uses a Rubik's Cube so Poitras, whom he has never met in person, can spot him in a crowded restaurant.
  • Self-Sacrifice Scheme:
    Snowden (message to Poitras): I appreciate your concern for my safety, but I already know how this will end for me, and I accept the risks. If I have luck and you are careful, you will have everything you need. I ask only that you ensure this information makes it home to the American public.
  • Shout-Out: The camera holds on a book in Snowden's hotel room - Homeland - also about a computer hacker who is fighting against invasion of privacy.
  • Sinister Surveillance: The movie presents that NSA surveillance program as this.
  • Spy Speak: Snowden's use of a Rubix's Cube and Sign/Countersign when first meeting with Laura Poitras.
    • The leaked information is filled with actual trade-craft jargon, mostly dealing with cyber-spying, which Snowden helps the journalists decipher for public consumption.
  • Title Drop: Citizenfour is the username Edward Snowden uses to establish contact with Laura Poitras.
    Snowden (message to Poitras): In the end, if you publish the source material, it is likely I will be immediately implicated. This must not deter you from releasing the information I will provide. Thank you, and be careful. Citizenfour.
  • Trust Password: Snowden has Poitras meet him at a hotel restaurant...
    Snowden (message to Poitras): I will be working on a Rubik's Cube so you can identify me. Approach me and ask if I know the hours of the restaurant. I'll respond by stating that I'm not sure, and suggest you try the lounge instead. I'll offer to show you where it is, and at that point we're good. You simply need to follow naturally.