Film Review: Snowden

Oliver Stone’s High-Tech Muckraker Makes A Solid, One-Sided Argument

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
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Since he distilled Jim Garrison and Jim Marrs’ various books on the Kennedy assassination into his 1991 opus JFK, filmmaker Oliver Stone has had the reputation of being a man who never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like. Whether the assertion is true or not, Stone has spent a chunk of his career picking at the edges of controversial, real-life people and places (El Salvador, Vietnam, Wall Street, Richard Nixon, the World Trade Center, George W. Bush). His latest film plunges straight into a hot-button, headline-grabbing controversy du jour, the case of NSA whistleblower/traitor Edward Snowden.

Snowden is a relatively straightforward retelling of the dissident computer programmer’s life, as related and officially endorsed by Snowden himself. Stone’s film is more or less a dramatization of Laura Poitras’ documentary/interview Citizenfour. Most of its information is lifted directly from that 2014 film and from information Snowden shared with journalists from The Guardian and other papers. It starts in Hong Kong in 2013 where the on-the-run Snowden meets up with a couple of international journalists (Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson) and a documentary filmmaker (Melissa Leo) to spill the beans on the US government’s domestic surveillance program. From there, the film settles into standard flashback mode to get us up to speed.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (
Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Looper) does some well-modulated character work as Snowden, a conservative-leaning nerd who volunteers for the Army Reserve as a Special Forces candidate in the wake of 9/11. Physically unsuited for military field work, Snowden is discharged and soon applies for a position with the CIA. His preternatural skill with computers quickly lands him a job in the global communications division at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. There, he hobnobs with the assistant director (a quietly menacing Rhys Ifans) and befriends a burned-out engineer (Nicolas Cage, in an understated cameo). It’s from the latter that Snowden gets his first inkling that he’s not so much in the terrorism fighting business as the “military industrial happiness industry.” In other words: efficiency, economy and results are significantly less important than long, drawn-out strategies that generate lots of money for major American corporations.

As Edward bounces from CIA to NSA and back again, he becomes more and more disillusioned by the lack of intelligence in the intelligence community. He also pieces together the American government’s efforts to covertly gather intelligence on its own citizens. In what seems like a flagrant violation of the Fourth Amendment, the CIA is recording cell phone conversations and email exchanges between innocent Americans. The justification is that even if people haven’t committed a crime, they can be used as “assets” to fight terrorism.

In one grimly demonstrative sequence Snowden and a gung-ho field agent (Timothy Olyphant) essentially manipulate and blackmail a perfectly innocent Pakistani banker—just so they can secure some connections to Middle Eastern finance. It’s a point the movie drives home well. The reason “collateral damage” (like the kind we seem to get in so many remote-controlled drone strikes) is irrelevant in the war on terrorism is because no one is really trying to fight terrorism. The people in power simply want to seize control of citizens, governments, information and ideals across the globe. The ones with the most data win. Unable to continue operating in this increasing amoral world, Snowden hatches a plan to steal documentation on the domestic spying operation and leak it to the press. Which he does.

Say what you will about Stone, he knows how to construct a convincing argument. Though on more than one occasion it starts to resemble a fancy TEDx lecture,
Snowden is a compelling distillation of Snowden’s high-tech crusade to speak truth to power. Individual scenes vibrate with tension, and Stone definitely has the skills to turn a sprawling ensemble cast and a whole lot of technobabble into a lucid think piece. If only the writer-director weren’t so credulous. Is it possible that Snowden was just a paranoid, knee-jerk libertarian drunk on the idea of bringing down Big Brother? Or a brainwashed liberal traitor? Or any one of a dozen other possibilities? Not to listen to Stone tell the tale—which, if it doesn’t sanctify Snowden, at least canonizes the guy. That’s not to imply that Snowden was wrong in what he did or said. Value judgments concerning his methods aside, nearly all of Snowden’s assertions have proved to be true. Since Snowden’s data leak, domestic surveillance has been (more or less, probably, allegedly) shut down by the government. But Stone’s movie paints this tale as far too clear-cut black and white.

In the real world, one might question Mr. Snowden’s increasingly close ties to Russia (where he still resides) and his connection to WikiLeaks, which has been under increasing scrutiny in recent weeks for all but endorsing Russia’s hack of the DNC, for publishing the medical records of random people and for publicizing the names and identities of countless rape victims worldwide. To be fair, Snowden did come out earlier this month and mildly criticize WikiLeaks in a tweet, saying that “their hostility to even modest curation is a mistake.” But it just points out the fact that there may have been more shades of gray to this story than Stone was willing to look for.

Utterly convinced of his message, Stone fails to remember that uncertainty is the key to suspense. As a stylish piece of muckraking moral outrage,
Snowden is firebrand stuff. As a piece of drama, it’s lacking in urgency, curiosity and nuance.

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