Saturday, December 13, 2014

Review Round-up: Snowden film "Citizenfour" and Ebert tribute "Life Itself" offer an informative contrast in documentary filmmaking

As explained in this post from Tuesday, I’m seeing a wide swath of films right now in preparation for my year-end Top 10 list – which you should expect next week – and I am trying to write about as many of these movies as I can along the way. This means that not everything will receive a full review; films that I am either getting to late, or which I feel don’t necessarily warrant a full review, will be grouped together in multi-review posts, which will allow me to cover more films in a shorter amount of time.

Today, that effort continues, with thoughts on two documentaries that came out earlier this year: Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, about Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks from 2013, and Steve James’ Life Itself, about film critic Roger Ebert. I think these two documentaries offer a fascinating contrast. They are both absolutely worth watching, but where one – Citizenfour – takes a subject I would call essential and crafts a fairly loose, mediocre film around it, the other – Life Itself – tackles a much less ‘pressing’ or ‘significant’ topic with absolutely extraordinary grace, intelligence, and cinematic power. Even in the realm of documentary filmmaking, what a film is about matters less than how the film approaches its subject, and these two movies are a prime lesson in that fundamental tenant of cinema.

Continue reading after the jump…


Certainly, Citizenfour is buoyed by the significance of its subject, and the immediacy with which the story of Edward Snowden is presented. Director Laura Poitras is one of the journalists Snowden reached out to when he decided to leak information on the NSA’s rather horrific data-gathering practices, and there really is nobody closer to this moment who could tell this story. That proximity does indeed make for some riveting, fascinating footage. Poitras not only shares her initial e-mail communications with Snowden – the wording of each seeming to come straight out of a spy movie – but has massive amounts of footage from her encounter with Snowden in Hong Kong, where he divulged the information to her and fellow journalist Glenn Greenwald. That means we are essentially watching a major moment in modern American history unfold in real-time, behind the scenes, and that is, indeed, fascinating. Seeing Snowden’s attitude and posture at the moment he is about to take such a life-changing action is captivating, and hearing him justify his actions and make his arguments before the world ever knew his name is tremendously enlightening. At the very least, Citizenfour is a comprehensive video record of how these leaks came about, and of the opinions and personalities of those involved in what happened, and I find that both amazing and commendable. The film is essential viewing on that level alone.

However, having a noteworthy subject or important pieces of footage does not, in and of itself, make for great filmmaking. As a movie, Citizenfour is rather haphazardly put together, an overlong and structurally undisciplined assemblage of footage that plays more as an archive than an actual film. There are some interesting attempts at context early on, painting a broader picture about America’s intelligence overreach, and setting the stage for Snowden and his leaks to appear. But once Poitras, Greenwall, and Snowden enter the hotel room in Hong Kong, the film just stays there, presenting its ‘action’ as a series of long, uninterrupted dialogues between Snowden and the journalists. I think it’s all very interesting – riveting, even, at times – and Poitras wisely includes some news footage at key points to clearly connect the experiences in the hotel room to how this story broke in the larger world.

Cinematically, though, I find it mostly unengaging, a lot of good footage with no real structure, a lot of big, broad, important ideas – government overreach, the nature of free speech, the importance of privacy – without any underlying argument built by the film itself. There is a good through-line in the film critiquing President Obama, via the selection of various young voices (Snowden included), which paints a subtle but powerful rebuke of the optimism on which Obama rode to power; Poitras argues that by ignoring the executive overreach of his predecessors, and in fact making the situation worse, Obama and his administration invited people like Snowden to take a stance and fight back. That’s great stuff – clear, significant, and insightful argumentation. I wish the film had more of that. For the most part, it is content to immerse us in the minutiae of Snowden’s technological exposition, or in the challenges he and the reporters faced after the leaks, and while I again find it all very intriguing, I don’t know if, on the whole, Citizenfour tells me much I didn’t already know, or makes me think about these issues in a new light. That’s the difference between simply having a weighty subject and tackling that subject with genuine weight – Citizenfour ultimately feels too light and scattershot for the issues at hand, and as a result, I’ve found the film really hasn’t stuck with me at all since the end credits rolled. The potential is absolutely there, in the raw footage, to make something truly searing. Citizenfour is satisfied with something less ambitious, and while I still value the film immensely, I wish it had reached further (and I find the overwhelming critical praise for the film to be a little shortsighted).

Life Itself, on the other hand, works with remarkable passion to turn the life of Roger Ebert into an essential documentary experience. While I have written at length, on several occasions, about everything Ebert and his work meant to me, and I obviously believe film criticism is something important and worthwhile, I don’t think having Ebert as a subject automatically makes for a great documentary. There’s too much danger to veer into hagiography with a figure like Ebert, of course, and without a delicate touch, so many of the complexities of his life and work could get lost or diluted. Citizenfour is the kind of documentary that will get a slam-dunk reception from most no matter what, on strength of subject alone, but to make a movie about a single person, whose impact lay in the realms of art and culture, is not an easy proposition.

Color me pleasantly surprised, then, that Life Itself is sort of insanely great, a terrific tribute to this extraordinary film critic that is also a wonderful film in its own right. Steve James absolutely hit this one out of the park. Life Itself covers a broad range of topics – everything that should be discussed in talking about Ebert, really – yet is rooted in a clear sense of insight and perspective; it is long, at two hours, but never feels it, making each point with the sort of succinct, direct impact Ebert himself was known for; it has clear, abiding affection for this man and his work, but never shies away from that which made him complex and flawed; most importantly, it is an intimate portrait of one man and one life that holds meaning far beyond Ebert himself.

That last part surprised me most, for while I expected James to discuss Ebert’s battles with cancer, I could never have anticipated the absolute profundity with which James approaches the subject, using Ebert’s example as a springboard to contemplate life and death in all its infinite, unknowable profundity. James never gets an answer out of Ebert for what the title Life Itself means – it’s taken from Ebert’s 2011 memoir – but its application here makes total sense. At its heart, this is a film about a man at the end of his life, facing death and all the associated struggles, yet somehow managed to keep an optimistic outlook on things. I will never forget all the beautiful pieces Ebert wrote about dealing with death, or how he did not fear leaving this world. His strength in the face of adversity was truly awe inspiring, and it’s that power James taps into here, allowing us to ponder the nature of death, and the euphoria of life, as we watch this one man prepare to pass away. As someone who recently went through the process of losing a loved one to cancer, the film’s depiction of living with terminal illness feels incredibly authentic. Ebert’s wife, Chaz, has a monologue near the end about her husband’s final moments that came close to wrecking me, and from start to finish, there is a beauty and depth to this film that goes far above and beyond the call of duty. A simple meditation on Ebert’s life would have made for a good documentary. An insightful reflection paired with some truly piercing material about what it means to live and die make Life Itself a great one, and one of the best films of the year.

With careful consideration of all the major elements of Ebert’s career and life – ranging from his struggles with alcoholism to history with Gene Siskel on the TV show (which the film explores in terrifically intelligent, revelatory depth) – and with lovely, thoughtful stories and accounts from a wide range of people – James gets an emotional vulnerability out of Martin Scorsese here that I have never before seen in countless interviews with the director – Life Itself feels amazingly definitive. Only a year after Ebert died, James has delivered as perfect a cinematic account of the man’s life as could ever exist. He analyzes Ebert’s prose, carefully considers both sides of the argument of what Ebert did for film criticism, engages with Ebert’s hobbies, passions, and faults, and so on. Ebert might be gone, but watching Life Itself is like getting to know the man first hand. It is incredibly immersive, filled to burst with fascinating anecdotes and compelling reflections, and while I think any person could enjoy the film, no matter their familiarity with Ebert, fans of the critic will be positively overwhelmed. Life Itself is a treasure trove – and unlike Citizenfour, it is one that has been carefully edited and arranged for maximum cinematic impact. Ebert himself would love the film, I suspect. This is a truly phenomenal piece of documentary filmmaking. In fact, when I vote with the Denver Film Critics Society for our ‘Best Documentary’ award in January, I suspect this will be my #1 choice. It’s simply that good – and suddenly, I find narrowing down my Top 10 list all the more complicated.  

But more on that later. Plenty more films to see in the next few days, and at least a couple more articles like these to post before the year is out. Keep an eye on the site – there have been lots of reviews going up recently, and many, many more still to come, in addition to the Top 10 and Top 30 lists on the horizon.

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