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“I’m not the story,” Edward Snowden insists to his journalist handlers in the absorbing, thrilling “Citizenfour.”

Too late.

Directed with deft technical touch by Laura Poitras, “Citizenfour” is the much anticipated documentary on how Snowden, a former contractor with the National Security Agency, leaked documents on the agency’s top-secret surveillance programs to Poitras and reporter Glenn Greenwald, who then worked for The Guardian newspaper in London.

Given the explosive nature of Snowden’s revelations, viewers will recognize at least some of these tidbits: a secret court order requiring Verizon to turn over metadata from U.S. citizens to the NSA; a clandestine operation to penetrate the servers of Google and Facebook and tap into underwater data cables; powerful software that collects and analyzes astonishing amounts of personal data in real time.

But taken together, the resulting tapestry of Big Brother overreach presented by “Citizenfour” still shocks.

“Citizenfour” is actually the code name Snowden used when he first contacted Poitras through emails that contained encrypted files.

Poitras employs clever techniques to depict the cloak-and-dagger nature of their relationship: During the film’s opening scenes, she reads Snowden’s emails in a matter-of-fact but ominous voice-over. Later on, the Internet chats between Snowden and Poitras are typed across the movie screen, as if the conversation was unfolding at that very moment.

Poitras and Greenwald eventually meet and interview the prized source at a hotel in Hong Kong, where even the sound of a fire-alarm test is enough to make everyone in the room sufficiently paranoid.

Some of the documentary’s most powerful moments occur when Poitras points her camera at Snowden’s face as he watches the fallout from his leaks play out on CNN. Snowden’s expressions betray not self-righteous triumph but rather genuine fear, a fear we assume pushes him to eventually seek asylum in Russia, where he remains today.