This Academy Award-winning documentary follows the story of Edward Snowden, the CIA employee-turned-whistleblower who publicly exposed the National Security Agency's illegal surveillance techniques. Filmmaker Laura Poitras explains that she has been closely monitored by the United States government because of the political nature of her 2006 film "My Country, My Country" and its 2010 follow-up "The Oath," stating that this film completes the unofficial "trilogy." She receives e-mails from an anonymous source calling itself "Citizenfour," urging her to take extra security precautions in her correspondence. The same source also contacts Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald, though they are unable to create a secure connection, and Citizenfour explains that Poitras has been "chosen" because of her extensive experience with filmmaking and her "victimization" by the NSA. Poitras soon moves to Berlin, while elsewhere at the HOPE Conference crypto-mathematician William Binney talks about his experience as a code-breaker and his lifelong love of puzzles, explaining that after 9/11, the government began "spying on everyone in this country," using telecommunications data to monitor phone calls and other correspondence through an unregulated, un-Constitutional program called Stellarwind.

In his e-mails, Citizenfour explains that the NSA has never in its history collected more data than it currently does and that large corporations, such as AT&T, are betraying its customers and their privacy. Presidential Policy Directive 20 created a "martial law for cyber operations," and NSA head Keith Alexander is seen flatly lying to Congress about their actions, stating that they are not authorized to monitor private citizens' correspondence without the FBI. In 2006, AT&T customers sued when technician Mark Klein revealed their illegal operations, though the case proceeded slowly and the Department of Justice representative suggests that the surveillance was justified in the name of national security. Elsewhere, Jacob Appelbaum of the Occupy Wall Street movement gives a talk about "linkability" and how the average person's movements can be monitored and analyzed – perhaps incorrectly – by the metadata created via their technological connections. At a 2013 Senate hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper states that the government is not "wittingly" collecting data on its citizens, and Poitras prepares to meet with the source, who recommends that she team up with Greenwald and states that he wishes to "paint a target directly on his back," hoping to protect his loved ones from scrutiny.

In June 2013, Poitras and Greenwald head to Hong Kong and film their encounter with Citizenfour, revealed to be 29-year-old CIA computer professional Edward "Ed" Snowden, over a period of eight days. Snowden states that he is disinterested in personalizing the story, as it will distract from the important issues, and explains that the people must have the right to "meaningfully oppose" state power. He states that his observations of the NSA's greatly-increased surveillance, particularly in the form of drone footage, which he was able to watch live on his desktop computer, "hardened" his resolve to speak out against the injustice. He declares that the risk to his personal freedom is worth it, as he remembers a time before people had to fear being placed on "the list" when they searched for certain information. They are soon joined by British journalist Ewen MacAskill, and Snowden describes how a "selector" can be used to retroactively search through a person's communications to find specific data. He provides further background on himself, explaining that he is "on loan" to the CIA from management consulting film Booz Allen Hamilton, and admits that his family is totally unaware of his actions. He explains the "super-easy" decryption process to Greenwald, explaining that he is going through journalists rather than publishing the damning documents himself to avoid the appearance of personal bias, and adds that the British intelligence and security organization, GCHQ, uses a program known as Tempora to monitor its citizens' information, much like the NSA does in America.

Snowden advises the journalists about secure passwords and describes the vast volume of private information that is being collected simultaneously through certain computer programs, largely thanks to corporate partnerships, and Greenwald reacts with shock to the "science fiction"-like breadth of the conspiracy. He publishes the first exposé several hours later and appears on CNN to discuss Verizon's involvement, while back in the Hong Kong hotel room Snowden worries about his long-term girlfriend Lindsay Mills, who knows nothing of his actions and has been questioned about his "illness" and absence from work. Snowden and Greenwald debate the best time for Snowden to publicly reveal himself as the source, and a second story appears in the Washington Post within days. Snowden watches his own story unfolding on television, with Binney noting that he is not surprised by the revelations and other officials defending the NSA's actions as being necessary for public safety. He notes that his rent checks have been mysteriously halted and his home monitored, though reflects that the uncertainty of his situation is oddly "liberating." He elaborates to MacAskill about GCHQ's use of Tempora and a search tool called UDAQ, and he declares that he is not afraid to "come out" as the whistleblower, and though Greenwald wonders if they are "doing the government's work for them" by revealing himself too hastily, Snowden states his desire to "invert the model" of the shadowy, paranoid source figure.

Snowden records an official video describing his actions and background, including his security clearance, and his face is soon known to the entire world. Greenwald is hounded by reporters, and Snowden relocates to Poitras' hotel room when he begins to receive dozens of phone calls from the press. He meets with a human-rights lawyer, Jonathan Man, who tells him that Hong Kong will not extradite him to the U.S., and he soon obtains refugee states and goes underground. Poitras, realizing that she is being followed, returns to Berlin, and Snowden tells her via secure communication that they cannot meet in person any time soon, as he does not wish to risk his hosts' safety. In Rio de Janeiro, Greenwald visits the offices of the O Globo newspaper and explains that a great deal of information was gathered on Brazilian citizens via the PRISM program, and he and Poitras discuss their concerns about returning to the U.S. and being served with subpoenas. Poitras tells Snowden that the Guardian is highly nervous about exposing Tempora and its corporate partners, and in June, Snowden is formally charged with several felonies and receives assistance from WikiLeaks, including founder Julian Assange, to depart Hong Kong for political asylum elsewhere. Greenwald speaks at a Senate hearing in Brasilia, describing how the "national security" argument is a mere smokescreen and the true motivation for the surveillance is more about economic competition between countries.

Snowden's international group of pro bono lawyers meets to discuss his status, noting that the Espionage Act does not differentiate between "secrets" exposed for public good and those sold to enemy officials for personal gain, and Snowden tells Poitras that the FBI and CIA have teamed up with other countries' organizations to track him down. The U.K. government pressures the Guardian to destroy the GCHQ archive given to MacAskill in Hong Kong, and after forty days spent stranded, Snowden is granted a year-long asylum in Russia. President Obama denounces Snowden's actions, saying that a "lawful, orderly" examinations of the NSA's actions would have been more appropriate than a leak, and Greenwald's partner David Miranda is detained at Heathrow Airport on suspicions of "terrorism." In Brussels, webmail service Lavabit creator Ladar Levison explains at a hearing that he wished to "remove the service provider from the equation" to guarantee his users' privacy, and Appelbaum comments on the correlation of freedom and privacy, drawing a connection between so-called "passive" surveillance and active control. The NSA is found to have also tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone, and when Binney testifies in Germany, a CIA double agent is unearthed spying on the inquiry and Binney tells journalist Jeremy Scahill that reporters are definitely being monitored and would do well to adopt a "Deep Throat" style of research. Mills moves to Moscow to be with Snowden, and Snowden tells Poitras that he hopes his actions will "embolden more to come forward." Later, Snowden and Greenwald reunite in Russia, and the two converse in handwritten notes about Germany's involvement in American drone strikes and the "watch list" containing 1.2 million American names, among other shocking revelations.


  • DATE: 9:00 PM
  • RUNNING TIME: 1:53:37
  • COLOR/B&W: Color
  • CATALOG ID: 124954
  • GENRE: Public affairs/Documentaries
  • SUBJECT HEADING: Intelligence gathering and surveillance
  • SERIES RUN: HBO - TV, 2015


    • Jeff Skoll … Executive Producer
    • Diane Weyermann … Executive Producer
    • David Menschel … Executive Producer
    • Tom Quinn … Executive Producer
    • Sheila Nevins … Executive Producer
    • Steven Soderbergh … Executive Producer
    • Sara Bernstein … Supervising Producer
    • Mathilde Bonnefoy … Producer
    • Dirk Wilutzky … Producer
    • Laura Poitras … Producer, Director
    • Kirsten Johnson … Co-Producer
    • Katy Scoggin … Co-Producer
    • Brenda Coughlin … Distribution Producer
    • Edward Snowden … Interviewee
    • Kenneth Stiller … Post Production Producer
    • Glenn Greenwald … Interviewee
    • Keith Alexander
    • Jacob Appelbaum
    • Julian Assange
    • William Binney
    • James Clapper
    • Mark Klein
    • Ladar Levison
    • Ewen MacAskill
    • Jonathan Man
    • Angela Merkel
    • Lindsay Mills
    • David Miranda
    • Barack Obama
    • Jeremy Scahill