Documentary maker Laura Poitras was aware she had been placed on a "watchlist" by the American Security Services, specifically the N.S.A., after her investigations into various human rights issues she found they had been carrying out, but nothing prepared her for her next film which began when she was contacted through e-mail by a mysterious character using the name Citizenfour. She didn't know it yet, but as they continued to exchange encrypted messages she realised he was an N.S.A. employee, keen to make it clear that he was being asked to conduct parts of his job that he was far from happy with. So much so that he was set on becoming a whistleblower, and exposing precisely the huge extent of the United States spying network...
That man was the soon-to-be famous Edward Snowden, and the also soon-to-be wanted by the U.S. Government on treasonous charges for the amount of information he gave away about the secret practices they were getting up to, specifically the degree of spying they were doing on the American public, and not simply them, they were snooping across the world, all thanks to a economical definition of lawbreaking they were implementing to ensure they could basically do whatever they wanted as far as private information went. As Snowden's leaks hit the headlines, the world was well and truly gripped with... apathy. Not outrage, as a rule, for there were certain people who were affronted, but in the main the reaction was "Tell us something we don't know!"
After Watergate, and all those books, movies, television shows and games following in its wake to make entertainment out of the real life issues had made the large majority pretty blasé about what the spies were spying on. It wasn't so much they didn't feel they had anything to hide, it was more they were resigned to the fact that should anyone be interested enough they could delve into your existence by fair means or foul and find out whatever they liked. If that hadn't been entirely true for the whole of recent times, it certainly felt like that now, so Snowden's revelations may have led to a lot of harrumphing from the authorities, as if they'd been embarrassed to be rumbled, yet almost everyone by this point had been accepting they were being watched anyway.
Those powers that be would tell you they were doing the right thing to combat the bogeyman of terrorism, and given most people are not terrorists and indeed are very anti-terrorism, the way the globe's security forces publicised their successes in bringing the insurgents to justice, often (but not always) before they had a chance to cause damage, has the populace believing the government reading their e-mails and browser histories was a small price to pay. Couple that with the way that life online was synonymous with sharing information about yourself, whether it be social media or blogs, meant the division between the private self and the public face was becoming increasingly blurred. Basically all Snowden had done was confirm suspicions and caused himself a lot of hassle.
This could have been a tense spy game torn from the headlines, but Poitras preferred to keep it as low key as possible, which made for a very monotonous watch. She could have revealed something genuinely shocking and many viewers would have missed it thanks to her grey, muted style that presented everything - her exclusive interviews with Snowden, the news footage, the recreations of online messaging - with the same impact, and that impact was a soft one when it should have been otherwise. One problem was that aside from Snowden, she never really got to put anyone on the other side of the argument on the spot, as the most exciting thing that happens is when the hotel fire alarm is tested which makes everyone in the room paranoid, then turns out to be... just the fire alarm being tested. That this won the Best Documentary Oscar among other awards was testament to what the juries thought was important about the film rather than its actual quality. And that's maybe the most chilling aspect, that there were no surprises when you got down to it.