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Film Review: Snowden

Snowden (2016; Directed by Oliver Stone)

If you want to know more about Edward Snowden, the computer whiz and intelligence agency contractor who exposed damning evidence of the United States government’s secret, sophisticated, and privacy-violating data-collection system of mass electronic surveillance of its citizens and of people worldwide in 2013, Oliver Stone’s dramatized narrative of the events of the principled analyst’s life ought to be close to a last resort. Far better to trust Citizenfour, the superb documentary filmed by Laura Poitras as Snowden hunkered down in a Hong Kong luxury hotel to release the revelatory NSA material to her and Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill, to get the details correct, compellingly featuring as it does the whistleblower himself in the very act of blowing his whistle.

It’s not that Snowden, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt in an eerily-accurate impersonation of the controversial figure, is especially non-good. Stone’s film treats its subject broadly, and presents Ed Snowden’s final truth-to-power choice to reveal what he feels to be inexcusable government overreach regardless of his personal safety and the potential legal consequences with the stirring triumphalism of a melodramatic victory in an against-the-odds underdog sports movies. The director of the magnificent JFK, the tour-de-force dramatization of the paranoid style in American politics, is no longer possessed of such tremendous conjuring powers.  But his depiction of Snowden’s disillusioning movement through the American intelligence deep state makes complex technical terms and systems intelligible without distorting their implications or consequences. He also makes it a dramatically and even emotionally involving odyssey (Stone co-wrote the screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald) while avoiding particularly inaccurate flights of creative license. Perhaps Stone had little other choice, as Snowden obtained the participation of and even a closing cameo by the famously exacting Edward Snowden himself, residing in peaceful (if precarious) exile in Russia since his revelations went public in 2013.

Snowden is structured to intercut between the progress of the Hong Kong hotel sessions in 2013 between Snowden and Poitras (played here by Melissa Leo), Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), and MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and the experiences in the intelligence world that shake his faith in fundamental American righteousness. A third plot thread details the costs on his long-term relationship with girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) of his frequent cross-global relocations, the strains of classified non-disclosure of his work, an epileptic condition, and his mounting moral doubts about what his government employers are up to. Yet another thread involves his CIA training mentor Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), who recognizes Snowden’s abilities and facilitates his rise through the intelligence world but also begins to suspect a wavering in his loyalties.

All of this presents vaguely as a political thriller, although any pursuits down dark alleys by shadowy, menacing figures are manifested primarily as sequences of furtive digital downloads (Stone can’t resist indulging in some danger-of-exposure tension in a climactic instance of this scene near the end of the film) or quiet displays of Snowden’s (justified) paranoia. Some ambitious and metaphorically-illustrative effects-driven sequences attempt to visually represent the mass aggregation of private digital information that Snowden discovers, including one in which countless linear streams of data flow to a circular central dome that pulls back to become a human eye. Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is varied but excellent, and he facilitates some of Stone’s most striking visual approaches, most notably a final video-link conversation between Snowden and O’Brian in which the teacher looms with intimidating, dominating accusation over his soon-to-be extremely rebellious student on a large screen.

Snowden is most an Oliver Stone film in his incremental dripping reveal of illegal government overreach and its disillusioning, curtain-pulling effect on Ed Snowden’s beliefs and understanding of patriotism. Snowden begins as a smart conservative with libertarian leanings (he earns O’Brian’s particular approbation in an entry interview with approving comments about Ayn Rand), though Mills’ liberalism works its way into his thinking over time and even convinces him that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama might abide by his promises to do things differently, better. Coming from a military family with intelligence and defense department ties, his earnest hopes to serve his country are redirected into intelligence analysis after a fractured tibia gets him discharged from the Army Special Forces. In his work, he learns of the secret FISA courts allowing the U.S. government to run electronic wiretaps without a warrant, a suite of technology and programs designed to search through reams of personal data of private citizens worldwide, CIA field operations that unethically destroy lives for miniscule advantages, and remotely-ordered drone bombings of children, families, and innocent people across the Middle East. In short, Snowden gets a closer and more detailed view of the processes and practices that prop up American global hegemony, and he doesn’t like it at all and decides to do something about it.

It goes without saying that Oliver Stone sees his own political beliefs reflected by Snowden’s evolution. He fundamentally understands the exposure and criticism of the clandestine operations of the U.S. deep state that support American interests worldwide to be the most patriotic and nation-loving act possible. What Stone thinks that he’s doing in films like Snowden (or more comprehensively in his revisionist history documentary series The Untold History of the United States), he sees Edward Snowden doing in his planned public leak of NSA data and processes. That Stone was unable to obtain Stateside funding for Snowden or to film it in the U.S. due to official government and Hollywood studio disapproval and even interference speaks to the controversial nature of Snowden’s story even today, as some political leaders acknowledge the positive conversation-starting contributions of the Snowden leaks and as some of the worst abuses of mass surveillance are preliminarily rolled back.

Snowden’s arc from the patriotism of following orders to the patriotism of disobeying them is a bit pat, however, and sees Stone falling into a classic trap of liberal thinking about political persuasion. Snowden’s is an exceptional case, an example of a citizen both tremendously intelligent and inherently principled with special access to classified information most Americans will never have, and with a willingness to ingest and be redirected to different ideological paths by the implications of that information that most Americans do not have either. The vast majority of American political alignment is a matter of inherited and socially-conditioned tribal loyalty, on both left and right. Most American voters do not change their minds or their allegiances even once during the course of their lives, even if the leader of their faction trangresses any and every boundary of civil and constitutional behaviour or proves quietly divergent from his pledged policy positions (like Barack Obama, who ultimately disappointed Snowden’s hopes for him).

If Edward Snowden is more exceptional than representative, Oliver Stone mostly treats him as such: a conflicted and flawed but ultimately true hero, the exemplar of a new sort of hard-won patriotism. It’s hardly as clear as Stone’s film makes it seem where America goes after Snowden’s revelations, and his story tells us much but offers little in the way of a roadmap forward on privacy issues or any other policies related to the nearly all-powerful national security apparatus. Stone, forever sceptical of government power and the influence of the intelligence sector no matter what party is in charge, firmly believes in speaking truth to power. He sees Edward Snowden through this prism. Snowden’s message has slightly more nuance to it, but Snowden gets as much of it as might have reasonably been expected. Just don’t expect too much of it, and give Citizenfour a glance to fill in its gaps.

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