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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Citizenfour (Blu-ray)
Citizenfour (Blu-ray)
Starz / Anchor Bay // R // August 25, 2015 // Region A
List Price: $26.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted August 13, 2015 | E-mail the Author

Doomed to be overshadowed by the scandal it documents, Laura Poitras' Citizenfour (2014) is a true exercise in restraint. Winner of last year's Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, it details the sudden rise of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (above), from first contact to the international fallout caused by his testimony and a mountain of incriminating evidence regarding the American government's surveillance of its own citizens. Snowden isn't alone: Citizenfour features no shortage of like-minded participants, including former NSA whistleblower William Binney, journalist Glenn Greenwald, and WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange, but Poitras plays it smart by shifting focus from Snowden's morally motivated efforts to the cause itself, lest Citizenfour come across as an insulated, one-man crusade.

Snowden's initial "message in a bottle" to Poitras and Greenwald was sent via an encrypted e-mail that vaguely defined his case, expressed his interest in meeting face-to-face, and was signed as "Citizenfour". Eventually, the director and journalist (along with fellow Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill, among others) would meet with Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel room, where the bulk of this verite-style documentary takes place: we're given a front row seat as Snowden finally identifies himself, presents the evidence, and decides when and how the story will be made public. In less than a week, Snowden's case would be covered widely by international media outlets...and soon enough, it's obvious that he won't be able to hide in his hotel room for much longer. Citizenfour touches briefly on the next steps in Snowden's saga...but like his initial revelation, it's concerned more with the information at hand than dramatic flourishes.

That's not to say that Citizenfour doesn't enjoy a few moments of drama; after all, this "fly-on-the-wall" perspective does a fine job of bringing viewers directly in on the action...since it technically does involve everyone. Snowden's increased moments of paranoia---some justified and some almost silly in hindsight, like a hotel fire alarm maintenance check in the middle of an early interview---is a necessary evil that drives the film's more suspenseful moments, but everything else about Citizenfour feels calm and collected. Much like the film's short window between its existence and international premiere---less than a month, by most accounts---it reveals one surprise after another, peppered by suspense that feels like a natural extension of its subject matter, not manufactured for shock value.

In all respects, Citizenfour is a near-flawless presentation of essential material, with an extraordinarily broad appeal that should place it high on the list of anyone even halfway interested in its subject matter. Compelling, accessible, and extremely well-paced, it's perhaps the most truly American film you'll see this year (our own James S. Rich provided a wonderful write-up in his theatrical review of Citizenfour almost a year ago, in case you need more convincing). The Blu-ray package arrives courtesy of Anchor Bay, which also includes a top-notch A/V presentation and a valuable assortment of thoughtful, appropriate extras. In all honesty, it's perhaps one of 2015's most important releases.

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio (with a few brief exceptions), this terrific 1080p transfer of Citizenfour looks about as good as expected for an on-the-fly documentary mostly shot indoors. Image detail is reasonably good, colors are evenly saturated, and black levels are mostly consistent. Very few digital imperfections are present---and may very well be part of the source material---including slight banding and a few artifacts, but it's not distracting in the least. Still photos, screen reproductions, and document excerpts all look very good. Either way, Citizenfour is hardly a visually-driven documentary, but what's here certainly gets the job done even if it doesn't push the limits of high definition.

DISCLAIMER: The resized screen caps and promotional images featured in this review do not represent Blu-ray's 1080p resolution.

The lone DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track also has very little trouble with the source material; dialogue is obviously anchored up front and usually quite clear, while background noise a few subtle music cues occasionally drift into the background. Channel separation is not prominent but rarely needed anyway. No hissing, distortion, or other such problems were detected from start to finish. Occasional foreign dialogue is translated if you choose the optional English subtitles, though separate English captions and Spanish subtitles put everything else into words if you need them.

Menu Design, Presentation, and Packaging

The plain-wrap interface is clean and very easy to use; a handful of pre-menu ads and warning screens must be dealt with beforehand, and no "resume" feature appears to be included. This one-disc release is housed in a standard keepcase and includes no inserts of any kind. The Blu-ray appears to be locked for Region "A" playback only.

Bonus Features

There's a nice mixture of additional content here, mostly in-line with what you'd expect from a higher profile documentary release. First up are three Deleted Scenes (13:55 total); both "Methods Can't Be Questioned" and "Strength of Your Beliefs" feature additional interview time with Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel room, while "A Scandal Is What It Is" is a more subdued clip of journalist Glenn Greenwald researching at his residence in Rio de Janeiro.

Also included is a lengthy segment of The New York Times "TimesTalks" (60:01) featuring director Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and Edward Snowden (appearing via videolink), who get a fairly equal amount of face time. Moderated by the late NYT columnist David Carr (who tragically died just hours later from metastatic lung cancer), this 2015 piece is an informative and well-balanced chat with plenty of discussion about the film's development, production, immediate impact, and the resulting fallout from the story itself. The film's Theatrical Trailer also plays beforehand.

On a related note, up next is a Film Society of Lincoln Center Q&A (28:18) featuring Laura Poitras; it's also worth noting that Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Ewan MacAskill, and David Miranda (all featured during the film) were in the audience, but Poitras does a fine job flying solo. Moderated by The Lincoln Center's director of programming Dennis Lim, this brief chat doesn't overlap too much with the previous interview...and interestingly enough, editor Mathilde Bonnefoy (who also cut Run Lola Run is also invited down by Poitras to field a question about halfway through.

Last but not least is The Program (8:36), a 2012 op-doc produced by Poitras for The New York Times. It's something of a trial run for Citizenfour and, for the most part, features William Binney speaking about his government work the the development of "Stellar Wind". As with the other bonus features, optional English subtitles are included.

The monumental Citizenfour is the rare documentary that affects just about everyone, regardless of political beliefs, race, or social status. This must-see film follows Edward Snowden during his emergence as an NSA whistleblower, from his initial contact with international media to the suspenseful fallout after everything went public. Citizenfour grants unprecedented access to the events as they unfold, and director Laura Poitras---along with Snowden himself, journalist Glenn Greenwald, former NSA whistleblower William Binney, journalist Ewen MacAskill, and others---paint a compelling picture loaded with physical and electronic evidence. Anchor Bay's Blu-ray does the film justice, serving up a rock-solid A/V presentation and a handful of worthwhile bonus features. Due to the film's enormous impact and this well-rounded disc, Citizenfour earns our highest rating: DVD Talk Collector Series. Absolutely not to be missed!

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, hanging out with his hot wife, and writing in third person.

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