Oliver Stone’s Snowden biopic opens with a title card declaring the events and characters you’re about to witness have been dramatized.
But anyone with an Internet connection and the ability to Google the words Snowden and PRISM will find the truth that inspired the movie is actually quite terrifying.
In 2013, government contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified government information to the press, sending the intelligence community in Washington into a panic. His actions branded him a traitor to some while others considered him a patriot in the truest form. Believing he wouldn’t get a fair trial due to the Espionage Act, Snowden decided to flee his Hong Kong hotel and seek asylum while the rest of the world pored over the information left in his wake which provided details about illegal activities conducted by the United States government.
The stuff that came out in the news was the stuff of conspiracy theorist nightmares. The leaks put a spotlight on government initiatives and programs like PRISM, an extensive surveillance program that collected and stored information obtained through telecommunications and the Internet. It was also discovered that the NSA had covertly installed backdoor programs into foreign systems around the world that could potentially take down entire networks with the press of a button. Alarming was the fact that these programs weren’t necessarily designed to combat exterior threats — PRISM was used on American citizens as well, and the backdoor programs were installed on computers in ally nations.
But Stone’s Snowden movie starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the titular whistleblower is educational as much as it’s a response to the mainstream media tide which turned in brutal fashion. What started as a flurry of news coverage about the contents of the leak swiftly and crushingly turned into character assassination that threw Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills under the bus. Snowden, the film, humanizes Edward and Lindsay, provides context for Snowden’s motive, and brings in a cast of supporting characters working behind the scenes.
Bouncing back and forth between different locations and time periods, the movie follows the character of Snowden initially training for special forces until an injury discharges him from active duty. He joins the CIA and proves to be one of its most brilliant minds. On the fast track to promotion, Snowden resigns after his conscience becomes burdened with too much guilt — with the help of the world’s most powerful search engine, Snowden finds a weak point in a banker’s family that allows the CIA to force the banker into becoming an asset.
Unemployed for a time, Snowden’s restless mind and his sense of duty bring him back into government work. Conflicts continue to test his loyalty to the intelligence community until he finally realizes how far the NSA will go and what its power could do to subjugate the country’s citizens. Working with independent reporters, a documentarian, and The Guardian, Snowden exposes one of America’s deepest darkest secrets and becomes a man without a country.
It’s a brilliant movie when it’s focused on the human aspect of its characters. Levitt’s Snowden, more of an interpretation rather than a re-creation, speaks in low tones, struggles with the human tendency to doubt his significant other’s loyalty to him, and mentions he cannot let go of his trajectory. Mills, played by Shailene Woodley, is multi-dimensional and nuanced. Hurt by Edward’s secrecy, she’s another facet to the story that adds to the recurring theme that secrets harm those we love.
On the flip side, the film’s greatest weakness is its bias — Snowden is nothing less than a superhero forced to content with the plight of mere mortals. His ability to speak sign language, figure out Rubik’s Cubes, and create programs that could shut down countries lead to a heist portion of the film that lacks defining tension. And his relationships — as important as they are — serve as expensive sacrifices to be consumed by the ultimate bridge-burn of messing with the world’s most powerful government.
The character alignment also seems a bit one-sided. Snowden’s mentor Corbin O’Brian comes across as instantly sinister, and his arc builds until he becomes the Sith Lord of the CIA, and I don’t mean that lightly or with any snark. In one scene featuring a video conference session, an entire wall projects Corbin looming ominously over the frightened contractor. When Corbin reveals he has been spying on Mills and knows she hasn’t been cheating on Snowden, it’s the last straw. The scene is partly amazing and partly over the top, and while Rhys Ifans gives the character a menacing presence, the scripting doesn’t try to make Corbin relateable or a sympathetic character.
But that sort of criticism might not be appropriate for Snowden because the key word is dramatization. Think of it as a modern-day fairytale as the Grimm Brothers would have intended it — dark, violent, and filled with horror — where the good guys are really good, and the bad guys are very bad. The film could have done a lot worse in giving us cookie cutter characters, but Snowden’s writing and characterization are actually geared towards the path of least resistance. Stone doesn’t want the audience to struggle with Snowden’s decision — the script is polished smooth so we don’t get stuck questioning the morality of Snowden’s decision.
Instead, we’re given scenes distilled for effect — and they’re mostly effective. Edward’s first epileptic seizure adds conflict with terms — the seizures are exacerbated and induced by stress. During his stay in Japan, Snowden and Mills have a tense exchange that highlights the stakes at hand. And in a powerful scene that doesn’t throw a lot of explication out to the audience, Corbin asks his protege if he’s been holding something against him. Snowden, having an opportunity to get an answer queries Corbin about a past conversation — one in which Corbin had lied to him. Ifans’ smile says it all. It’s as if he’s found a bit of comfort in knowing someone else now knows what he knows, and the dangerous and powerful burden is now shared by another, lightening the load.
What the audience is ultimately left with is a decision on whether to keep the conversation going. Whether Snowden will sway public opinion remains to be seen, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the sale of band-aids — to be used for covering webcams lenses — goes up. It’s a fact that the government spied on its own people by connecting to our cameras, opening up our most private social media profiles, and recording our every telephone call, text message, and email. The rationale that security is worth losing Constitutional freedoms might be re-examined upon seeing this movie, as Snowden himself had strong words about it in the interview portion that followed the Snowden Live Fathom Events sneak preview. Appearing onscreen behind Gordon-Levitt, Woodley, and Stone who sat on a stage, Snowden argued: “Saying you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don’t care about the First Amendment because you have nothing to say.”
And viewers will have plenty to say if privacy is an issue they care about. It’s interesting that Stone, during the Snowden Live interview, seemed a bit reserved and deliberate about his answers. But then again, he wore that familiar smile — the one that Ifans’ Corbin shared with Snowden.
It was the smile that said, “Now you know the secret. And now we share the burden.”
Directed by: Oliver Stone
Screenplay: Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Jaymes Butler, Robert Firth, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, and Tom Wilkinson