Following last year’s revelations about the extent of the US and other governments’ spying on all communications, this insider documentary shows the process of Snowden going public, with footage of his meetings with Guardian journalists in the days before the story went public.
Having such privileged access to its subject, this documentary is genuinely insightful. This isn’t pieced together from news footage, it shows Snowden’s original meeting with Glenn Greenwald, and their conversations about how best to make the leaks public. It shows the week before Snowden publicly came forward as the source, set mostly in his Hong Kong hotel room.
The documentary is mid-way between a story about the man himself, and about the extent of government surveillance. While the 2013 Wikileaks documentary We Steal Secrets went into detail about Chelsea Manning’s life and background, here we meet Snowden in the hotel room and find out little about him before that point. But it also doesn’t focus entirely on the issues, beyond what Snowden tells the reporters he meets during their discussions. It’s tightly focused on a couple of weeks.
This is fascinating in itself, giving a rare first hand glimpse into a defining moment in recent history. It feels a bit like watching Downfall, in that it gives a telling fly-on-the-wall account of real events, even if their subjects could scarcely be more different. In one scene, Snowden gets ready to leave the hotel as rolling news broadcasts his biography to the world, a fascinating juxtaposition of an ordinary man and the seismic consequences of his actions.
Snowden is remarkably calm through the entire process, from his initial meeting to the story going global and the subsequent media storm. Having already accepted the consequence of his actions, he manages to maintain his composure throughout. Far from the self-aggrandising Julian Assange, Snowden is remarkably unassuming.
The amount of time given to Snowden himself, as well as the process of making the revelations themselves public, feels slightly at odds with Snowden’s clearly stated desire to not make it about him or his personality, in order to keep the focus on the issues. And yet it’s important we are able to hear his side of the story in full, to understand the sacrifice he’s made.
This is a documentary which lets the footage speak for itself, and is honest and informative.