The new Snowden movie tackles the true, politically charged story of a polarizing whistleblower.
In his IMDb bio, Oliver Stone is described as, above all, “a master of controversial subjects.” His most recent directorial offering doesn’t back down — in fact, it pushes the claim even further. Snowden, coming out September 16, is set to be a hit, with an all-star cast and one of the biggest stories of the decade.
Following the life of Edward “Ed” Snowden, ex-CIA employee and NSA whistleblower, it stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the lead, alongside Zachary Quinto and Nicolas Cage in supporting roles.
Born and raised in New York City, Stone has always taken the liberty to scrutinize the country he calls home. His movies push buttons and ask questions, with titles such as Platoon (1986), Salvador (1986) and Wall Street (1987) all being noted for their criticism of America’s military and economic history. Stone says, “Snowden is a hero,” because he stood up to the US government in defense of American civil liberties. Stone explained at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan in 2013 that he believes what Snowden did constituted a “sacrifice” for “the good of us all.” It’s no wonder he’s chosen to dramatize the guy’s life.
For the sake of anyone wondering who Snowden is, let’s briefly run through the basics…
Snowden, born 1983, is a computer professional who leaked classified information from the NSA to journalists at the Guardian in London and the Washington Post. He worked at Dell before moving to the CIA and eventually became a contractor for the US government. As stated in Snowden’s interviews, and implied by the Snowden movie trailer, he came from a family of federal government employees and wanted to fight in the Iraq War. Due to injuries sustained in training, he didn’t go overseas but served his country by doing intelligence work instead. However, eventually realizing the extent of illegal surveillance, he blew the whistle on his own employers.
The documentary Citizenfour, comprised of footage recorded by filmmaker Laura Poitras, narrates the events building up to and surrounding Snowden’s disclosures to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill in a Hong Kong hotel room in 2013. It then follows the aftermath and Snowden’s journey to Russia where he’s been granted asylum for three years. Given its genre, Citizenfour focuses mainly on the facts: what information was released, who was involved, the media response, and what charges were made against Snowden as a result (violating the Espionage Act of 1917, and theft of government property). So even though there are numerous spy-movie-level tense moments, the film is more or less an extension of the journalism that covered the events: the man is portrayed as a messenger, a citizen.
In translating the events to a feature film, Oliver Stone will obviously have differences of approach. Once again the camera turns to the man himself, hence the title Snowden, and the aim becomes understanding what kind of life produced a person like him. In Citizenfour, Snowden himself talks about how he is wary of the media’s infatuation with personalities and worries an overemphasis on him would steal the spotlight from the important stuff: the secrets he risked his life to tell. At Comic-Con, Zachary Quinto talks about the difficulty of striking the balance between telling a great story and keeping the facts. The “goal,” he claims, is “certainly to pursue the truth and represent these people as authentically and honestly as possible.” Authenticity and honesty are important standards to uphold, especially given the subject matter of this particular movie.
Gordon-Levitt talks about how he met Snowden to try to get a better idea of how the man carries himself. According to Gordon-Levitt, Snowden is a “very graceful, gentlemanly type of guy.” The actor’s primary concern is getting Snowden right, but there’s also a sense of his awareness that in trying to dramatize events like these, the truth can be difficult to articulate.
In his own words, Snowden claims he “do[es]n’t care how they want to talk about me, as long as they’re getting people interested in the matters of governance, democracy and security for our communications around the world, [and] talking about what the world is today in the status quo, but more importantly what kind of world do we want to live in?” Done properly, Snowden will be both exciting and yet still ask these difficult questions.
The Big Short (2015) is a good example of “Hollywood does history” turning out well, and hopefully Stone’s Snowden will follow in its footsteps. These big-budget topical movies make entertainment a viable vessel of inciting change. The reason The Big Short worked, as we’ve discussed in an earlier article, was because it didn’t resort to a falsified feel-good ending when in fact the reality was tragic. It managed to be funny and emotive but refused to resolve the problems for us: in the end, the protagonists weren’t heroes, just people who played the bad system against itself. The movie equipped us but ultimately left the audience to figure out how we ourselves can actually change the system.
In the same vein, even if now you don’t feel the force of what Snowden did, the point is what might lie ahead. As Snowden explains in an interview, what we need to realize is “the systems are already in place” for someone to really seriously misuse them. Say, for instance, “in five years, in ten years, we eventually get an individual that says, you know what, let’s flip that switch and use the absolute full extent of our technical capabilities to ensure the political stability of this new administration,” they will, because they can. Scary, and real, stuff.
Solutions are being imagined, though. Snowden says we need “whistleblowing paths” where you can work “within the system in a way where you can get the grievance redressed” and “the bad policy corrected” without penalizing the individuals involved for trying to act in the public interest. Laws need to be rewritten and new ones created. Currently, such attempts to call out foul play are demonized and discouraged and often incur hefty prison sentences.
Demonstrators rally October 26, 2013, to protest spying on Americans by NSA, as revealed by Snowden. AP Photo.
And so it comes, as ever, to a simple question: “Are we going to change?” Will we be able to “recognize the danger” of this “quantified world”? Will we be able to “embrace the fact that people should have the space to make mistakes, without judgment,” and that if mistakes are indeed made, they’re dealt with in the interests of everyone, not just a powerful minority? These are Snowden’s concerns, and if the Snowden movie is worth the excellence of its credits, it will address them, leaving us not only on the edge of our seats but poised for the next protest.