A Film That Matters: A Review of Oliver Stone’s Snowden
A Film That Matters:
A Review of Oliver Stone’s Snowden
Oliver Stone’s new biopic film Snowden, chronicling the professional life of, and very public disclosure of classified data by, Edward Snowden, is unquestionably an important film. Unlike many other films produced by Hollywood, it sticks largely to the facts, albeit through the subjective eyes of the main character, without having to fictionalize, sensationalize or pander to a lowest-common-denominator audience. The writing is intelligent, terse, effective and appropriately ominous, without being alarmist. The performances are all excellent, accomplished by a strong cast of popular and recognizable actors who regularly deliver solid and admirable work. Unlike so many of Stone’s earlier movies, the film really showcases his ability to tell a story convincingly and engagingly without resorting to outlandish techniques or purely speculative content. It is a film about the real world we live in, and the real people who live in it, and the many complicated choices and challenges that these real people face as they attempt to justify to themselves and others the moral and political implications of those choices.
It is therefore rather surprising, and downright concerning, that there seems to be a campaign in the media against this film. Only today has the film reached a 60% rating on Rottentomatoes.com, awarding it a tomato symbol rather than the dreaded green splat of goo. The magazine Entertainment Weekly published a review in which the critic, evaluating the film with a grade of C, all but dismisses entire performances due to the hair piece the actors wear, claiming that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s vocal impersonation of the real Snowden is distracting, or claiming that the actress playing Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay has little to do but stand around looking worried. Negatively comparing the film to other fact-based films such as The Big Short, which was telling an entirely different kind of story, the EW reviewer, like many other critics, basically suggests that this film adds little to the story examined in the documentary Citizenfour, admittedly an excellent film and compelling film.
Many other reviews deliver a similarly dismissive assessment of the film, some of which express a dislike for this film precisely because it is not as sensational or gripping as Stone’s own JFK, again a very different movie telling a very different story. When it came to JFK, Stone was dealing with a story about a man who had been dead for decades, set in an era that has come and gone, examining a subject replete with all manner of conspiracy, deception and secrecy, focusing on a protagonist whose very mission was to question the official story, chase after every lead, and open his mind to speculative and alarmist thinking in order to reconcile the immensity of conflicting facts and unanswered questions contained within the “official” story of what happened to President Kennedy.
Whereas Snowden actually succeeds because it is told in a more straight-forward, less speculative manner, and because the real man is still alive and has provided so much evidence to support the facts he has presented to the world, so there is less need for speculation. The audience is presented with a story that reveals the depth of secrecy at work in the world, revealing the unimaginably complex nature of the seemingly infinite ways the intelligence community can invade and monitor everyone’s lives, affirming the very fears and claims that have long been dismissed as “theories” by those who are demeaned as conspiracy nuts, as if the very possibility of conspiracy is laughable. Edward Snowden helped to show the world that the fears are justified, the conspiracies are real, and that there is no need for speculation, because he had the data to prove it. The film succeeds in portraying the man as a highly intelligent, gifted computer genius, who genuinely wants to do good in the world, believing in the notion that his government is just and that serving his country within the ranks of the intelligence community is where his gifts might best have been applied.
Only later does he begin to realize that lies, deception and a flagrant disregard for human rights, even human life, seem to characterize the very foundation of how our government now actually operates. The great revelation of the film thus becomes the fact that, rather than being an alarmist, Snowden made a very conscious, considered decision to divulge to the public what he came to believe was a gross injustice, divulging the inner workings of a monster run amok with no one and nothing to stop it because of its very clandestine, yet highly abusive and corrupt, nature. This is where Stone’s instincts really paid off, and why the film is so successful, for it presents Snowden’s life, and the facts that he came to discover, in a straight-forward and no-nonsense manner that conveys how genuinely concerning the nature of electronic surveillance truly is.
The film chronicles how this mass surveillance is carried out by agencies that operate with little oversight, almost no public awareness, making decisions and performing acts that are inherently self-serving and often unilateral, all in the supposed name of keeping people safe. The film raises the important question, how can a government claim to serve the interests of its citizens if nearly everything it does is performed without their knowledge or consent? How can a government that explicitly lies to its populace, actively spies on them without permission or often cause, all while justifying itself using “we know better,” or “what they don’t know won’t hurt them” arguments, be considered trustworthy or effective in supporting a cohesive and moral society? The film does not need to sensationalize its content in a manner that comes off as alarmist, because the very content itself is inherently alarming.
Most of the arguments that attempt to undermine or demean the film by focusing on specific aspects of the film do not really stand up under scrutiny. First there is Gordon-Levitt’s performance, which is brilliant, solid and very human. It is often tricky business playing a real-life figure, especially one who is still alive and still very much in the public eye. It is a genuinely risky choice to attempt to impersonate someone else when portraying him or her in a film, yet Gordon-Levitt succeeds convincingly. Not only does he capture Snowden’s speech inflections and general monotone quality flawlessly and consistently, he offers a performance that is very much his own, his voice actually adding to the performance, rather than detracting from it.
Shailene Woodley also offers a touching and humane performance, conveying the many frustrations of attempting to have a relationship with someone where true openness is impossible in the face of strict secrecy and the pervasive, yet unspoken, underlying sense of threat that infects her relationship with her partner. The film’s depiction of Lindsay as somewhat oblivious to the many forms of invasive surveillance to which she is subject, as well as her seemingly unconcerned reaction to that possibility, directly speaks to the attitudes of average American citizens, who perhaps have a general sense of how sophisticated this technological machine has become, yet either deny its threat, argue that they have nothing worth hiding, or simply dismiss the possibility that they as individuals would be targeted.
Perhaps one could argue that there was too much focus on the relationship between Edward and Lindsay, and not enough of time spent exploring the ins and outs of Snowden’s relationship with the journalists and their struggle to publish this information in an effective way. The audience really isn’t given much background on the journalists or filmmaker that Snowden establishes contact with in order to get the information out. There is no mention of the many emails he sent to Laura Poitras that led to their auspicious Hong Kong meeting, showing only the final communication in which they set up their initial meeting. Here is where the film departs from reality a bit to make it seem that Snowden hastily downloaded classified information all at once and made a break for it, making passing mention of the fact that he had previous exposure to Poitras’s films or Glenn Greenwald’s journalism output. In reality, Snowden downloaded the classified information over time and established contact with Poitras several months before their meeting, which realistically was far riskier than the scenario the film depicts. Like any fictionalized film put out by Hollywood, there are certain liberties taken to tell a convincing story within a certain time frame.
Stone’s decision to focus less on Snowden’s time with the journalists is actually a strength of the film, though, because it does not attempt to exhaustively re-examine the material presented in Citizenfour. Overall, Snowden establishes a good balance between Snowden’s meeting with the journalists and the aftermath of the revelations of his data dump with the more personal and biographic material of the film. The Oscar-winning documentary already covers Snowden’s time in Hong Kong, his correspondence with Poitras leading up to it, and adeptly chronicles the process of initially publishing the articles that presented this leaked information to the public, as well as exploring more deeply Snowden’s reasoning for doing what he did and the impact these actions had on his life and the lives of the journalists.
Ultimately, Citizenfour and Snowden work together to tell the whole story, rather than the biopic being a mere cliff’s notes version for the average movie-goer who rarely watches documentaries. Stone’s film more deeply examines the real human cost of living a life like Edward Snowden’s and the negative impact it had on his own health and relationships. It shows the entire process of a man who went from believing in the value and integrity of his government, to genuinely realizing that these communities seem to use any justification necessary to carry out their agendas, and the actual rights or welfare of the populace, in Snowden’s estimation, did not seem to genuinely be a top priority.
The film examines the destructive effects fear, secrecy, greed and morally ambiguous actions can have not only on a society at large, but on individual people and their relationships, made all the more real by the depiction of Snowden’s rocky relationship with his girlfriend. Another achievement of this film, due to its examination of Snowden’s actual professional life in the intelligence community, is offering audiences a glimpse of the two-faced nature of politicians and intelligence officials, how the intelligence agencies use people as “assets” without regard to the consequences for those people and their families, such as establishing relationships with people in order to gain their trust, then spying on them to use information against them as leverage. This was adeptly handled by the scenes involving the Pakistani doctor Snowden meets in Switzerland, which is how he initially became aware of the NSA’s ability to obtain the information they require by mining the digital footprint of anyone associated with an individual in question. The film reveals how pervasive and insidious the methods of surveillance have become and how little privacy is actually respected, concepts further highlighted by juxtaposing Snowden’s own interrogation-style job interviews with the practices of public surveillance. The film offers plenty of effective and eye-opening scenes that demonstrate exactly how these tools are used and to what ends, reinforced with helpful visuals and explanations.
Another effective theme Stone explores is the oft-examined dynamic of how the government appropriates ideas and inventions for its own use, often giving no credit or recognition to the inventor, and ultimately uses those ideas or inventions for purposes, or in a manner, which they were never intended to be used. This is effectively introduced by Nicolas Cage’s character, a man Snowden meets during his initial CIA training, who served the intelligence community by inventing a tool that was dismissed by his superiors, only to be appropriated and used to serve their own agenda. When the inventor called foul, he was sidelined to a new post as an instructor so he wouldn’t rock the boat. This scene foreshadows the later one in which the same thing happens to Snowden, when he discovers that his own invention, created to protect the CIA and NSA servers in the event of a hack or outage, has been re-worked to more effectively track terrorists so that they can be assassinated by surveillance drones.
These scenes and many others provide the audience a very human portrayal of Edward Snowden, presenting the many moments, revelations and concerns which led to his ultimate decision to “betray” the very organizations that he had served, all in the name of national security, when he realized it was the very security and sanctity of individual lives that were being disregarded and undermined. While Citzenfour effectively examines these questions in a compelling way, it is unable to truly dive into the scope of exactly how all this is carried out, what the real costs to individuals truly are, and present a real-time depiction of exactly how this process works and the real nature and rationalizations of the many, often conflicted and confused, people who actually implement these covert programs.
The film does betray the director’s bias in that it venerates Snowden as a hero, rather than more objectively examining his motivations against the motives of the governmental agencies it ultimately judges to be almost hopelessly corrupt, however this is also exactly what Laura Poitras does with Citizenfour. The documentary does not even attempt to examine the logic or rationalizations of the intelligence community from the mouths of its other, less rebellious members, the balance being achieved by showcasing the retaliatory speeches and opinions of politicians as reported by the media. Yet in that regard, both films serve as a testament to the filmmakers’ ability to champion the courage and integrity of a single man who went against everything he was raised to believe, in order to do what he believed was right, despite having entrenched himself into a community of people who use similar logic to perpetrate some of the worst horrors known (or unknown, as the case may be) to human kind.
Snowden establishes an admirable middle ground between the unsettling and doom-laden feel of Citizenfour with a sense of humanity, hope and straight-forwardness that both communicates to the average person the very real and observable consequences of living under such a deceptive and self-righteous regime of men and women interested more in power, control and money than the welfare of the the planet and the beings who inhabit it, in addition to celebrating the difference one person can make when he or she is willing to question the official story and have the courage to simply tell the truth, which ultimately is all Edward Snowden really did, despite what the “authorities” want the people to believe.
The film also succeeds in showing the viewer that as a conglomerated entity, the military-industrial-intelligence apparatus has become as cold, calculating, indifferent and mechanical as the technological methods it employs to implement the various methods of information gathering and, ultimately, control of a planet and its populace whose very lives, health, welfare and appreciable value it flagrantly disregards. On the other hand, it also examines how these machines, computers, drones and orders are operated and carried out by people, who are often conflicted by the moral choices with which they are faced.
The film’s main argument is that the more people behave like Snowden–carrying out the will to tell the truth and make decisions that are contrary to the established edicts of a monstrously corrupt system without being intimidated or threatened into silence or compliance, to value the sanctity human life, to recognize that individual privacy and true freedom are more important than money, power or control–the more likely the human race will succeed in transcending these shady practices and establish a more harmonious, functional and holistic system of living that places more value on human relationships and truth than on manipulation, control or “security.” Despite the derisive overall critical response in the media, Snowden proves to be an effective, important and well-crafted film that very much adds a new and relevant dimension to the story of Edward Snowden, supporting and elaborating upon, rather than trivializing or glossing over, the material presented in Citizenfour.