Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 14 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 5; Sex 5/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
Buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding.
They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
The further a society drifts from truth the more it will hate those who speak it.
Is Edward Snowden a prophet, a modern Amos or Jeremiah, denouncing the falsehoods and anti-Constitutional practices of the U.S. security system? Or is he a new form of Benedict Arnold, a traitor selling out his country? There are millions of Americans proclaiming, “Yes!” to one or the other question. Some advocate that he should be praised and awarded some kind of medal for following his conscience, whereas others declare that he should be locked up for a long time because of his release of thousands of government classified documents.
Director Oliver Stone supported conspiracy theorists in his controversial 1991 film JFK, so I was wary of his newest work. Fortunately, this time he doesn’t veer so far from reality—and we can better check his alleged facts, especially if we have seen the 2015 Oscar winning documentary Citizen Four. Indeed the director of that film, Laura Poitras, is a major character in Stone’s docudrama, based on Anatoly Kucherena’s novel Time of the Octopus and Luke Harding’s nonfiction The Snowden Files. Snowden himself is portrayed in laid back fashion by the talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
The framework for the film is the period of eight days in June 2014 during which Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) interviewed Snowden at Hong Kong’ s The Mira Hotel. Greenwald was soon joined by Defense and Intelligence correspondent Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), both of whom work for the London newspaper The Guardian. In between segments of this, Stone inserts flash backs to Snowden’s training stint at a Special Forces camp (he had been inspired by the World Trade Center attack to defend his country); his meeting the liberal photographer Lindsay Wills (Shailene Woodley) in a café following their numerous exchanges on a dating site called Geek-Mate; interactions with his rather spooky acting CIA mentor, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) and disillusioned tech expert Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage); growing uneasiness with the intrusive “Big Brother” aspects of the NSA and CIA’s surveillance of Americans and citizens and officials of numerous other nations; and his headline-making decision to contact documentary filmmaker Poitras and the reporters to bring to the public the facts of the government’s breach of the Constitution. He claims to have tried on numerous occasions to have warned his superiors (they have denied this, of course), and to have put off his disclosures when Barak Obama won the Presidency because he hoped that the man who had strongly advocated governmental transparency would put a stop to the surveillance practices. Instead, the practice became even more intrusive, so he decided to go public.
It is interesting to see in the film Snowden change from a conservative supporter of the Bush administration—he was very sorry that in 2004 he had to drop out of the military when he broke his legs during training—to a radicalized rebel, a character arc similar to that of Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic in Stone’s Born of the 4th of July. (The doctor examining Snowden’s fractured legs tells the disappointed man, “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” And so Snowden turns to the CIA, accepting recruiter Corbin O’Brian’s invitation to join the agency.) The film gives much credit—or blame if you thank he is a traitor—to Lindsay for this change. We see them arguing over Bush and his Iraq War, the patriotic Snowden at first supporting the war. He becomes a gung ho CIA tech agent at first, proud to be mentored by O’Brian and Forrester. But as his tech skills lead him higher and higher up the CIA and NTS ladder, he is exposed to more operations which creates a feeling of uneasiness. A feeling that some of his young associates also share. At a pool party one man in the drone program shares his misgivings. Can he be certain that the people his killing at the press of a button are really the bad guys? Snowden serves in the CIA, then leaves and works at various tech companies, such as Dell. Because of his tremendous coer skills and expertise he is assigned by the CIA to National Security Agency projects, given the highest security clearance so that he can access their files.
In his Hong Kong hotel room Snowden tells his interviewers that his breaking point came in March of 2015 when he saw on TV James Clapper, Director of the National Intelligence, lie under oath to a Congressional committee that the government was not reading and storing calls and emails of US citizens. From his work as a contractor at Booz Allen he knew that the NSA was monitoring the communications of people all over the world, including those of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Three days later he quits his job at Dell, and leaves the CIA Hawaii facility for Hong Kong without informing Lindsay of what he was actually doing. The rest, as they say, is history.
It is intriguing how Snowden’s beloved Rubick’s Cube becomes an important f actor. He tells Poitras that she will know him in the hotel lobby by the Cube he will be carrying. At the closely guarded CIA facility where he downloads the secret files, he hides the tiny computer chip beneath one of the Cube’s colored tiles. When he passes through the building’s security check point he tosses the Cube to a guard who amusingly plays with it and then tosses it back to Snowden as the latter emerges from the scanning machine.
I have been surprised that so many reviewers, including that of Time Magazine, have been lukewarm about the film, partly because of its lack of fast-paced action. I wonder if Stone had reverted to his old sensationalist style and had Snowden dash out of his hotel, chased by CIA agents like those depicted in Jason Bourne, his getaway car careening wrong-way down crowded streets and reaching the airport just in time to jump aboard the departing plane, would have garnered more critical support. I found it suspenseful enough (even though aware of its outcome), and best of all, raising serious ethical issues that challenge viewers, especially American ones, to think. A few things to ponder:
- Corbin O’Brian declares, “Secrecy is security, and security is victory.” How does this view jube with democracy in which transparency is essential if the people are to be responsible citizens? This character is probably based on a real CIA agent, but the name is fictional. The last name being almost the same as that of the interrogator in Orwell’s 1984 is no accident, I am sure.
- In the sequence in which Snowden works as a field agent he is told that the way to get a mark to cooperate is to have some hold over him. In this case he and his senior agent ply a foreign banker with drinks and, leaving him drunk, phone the police and report that the man had been driving. Now, with an arrest record, he can be manipulated to do their bidding, but does the end justify the means?
- Snowden learns that government agents can turn on a laptop’s camera to survey the owner and all who come into view, so he covers his with a Band-Aid. Big Brother has arrived at last?
- Snowden comments on the consequences of his controversial handing over his files (he claims to have kept no copies) to the journalists so that they can decide better than he which to make public, “We will not be silent…When I left Hawaii I lost everything, but I gained something.”
What might that “something” be? His sense of integrity at seeing a great wrong and doing something about it? Perhaps, from a spiritual point of view, gaining his soul? I thought of the latter while watching the tracking shot of Snowden walking out of the tunnel facility from which he has smuggled out the tiny computer drive with its thousands of files. At first he is somewhat in the shadows, but as he emerges from the tunnel his face is brightly lit, uncommonly bright. He is smiling
I realize that if you are one who thinks Snowden is at worst a traitor or at least a misguided zealot who should have protested in a legal way, the above might be too much to accept as true. I myself was discomforted by the portrayal of President Obama as part of the illegal operation of surveillance overkill—but then so was Snowden. Initially hopeful that the call for government transparency made by Senator Obama would be implemented by President Obama, Snowden quickly became disillusioned when this did not happen. When I browsed “Snowden” on Google I was intrigued to discover that much of the world certainly does not regard the American government’s “most wanted man” as a criminal. The European Parliament on October 29, 2015, voted 285 to 281 for a non-binding resolution calling for EU states to drop criminal charges against Snowden and prevent his extradition by third parties. This was in recognition of “his status as a whistle-blower and international human rights defender.” His action has alerted the American public (and the world) to the danger of losing its privacy, so that the government has first had to admit it was spying on virtually everyone, and, secondly, curtail its surveillance program—and apologize to a lot of irate foreign leaders, such as Germany’s Angela Merkel. It is ironic that in protesting the US government’s surveillance program Snowden should find refuge in the capital of one of the world’s least transparent governments, Russia, a country dedicated to keeping a sharp eye on all of its citizens.
Many critics have complained that Stone’s technique is too simple and straightforward with none of the camera jazz that made Natural Born Killers so much fun to watch. I think they are missing the point, that the filmmaker is totally sold on the story and its importance to America, and indeed the world. No fancy film techniques are needed. Just tell the story, and explain the techniques of computers and the Internet clearly so that all can understand. The story is almost a jeremiad, a warning to the world that something precious is being sacrificed for the sake of security. Edward Snowden is the messenger carrying that warning, and as so often happens, there are those who want to kill the messenger. Amidst all the more popular films now showing, this is the movie that really matters, one that everyone should be seeing and discussing (or debating).
Note: There is on YouTube a 5-minute film entitled Verax made by young Hong Kong filmmakers while Snowden was in their city. On the right side of the screen you will also see numerous films about and interviews with the whistle blower.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Octobery issue of Visual Parables