Oliver Stone has always been a uneven filmmaker. He’s made one radical masterpiece, Salvador, one dull, conservative flop, World Trade Center, and one overly long, but potent Molotov cocktail the mainstream media tried, but ultimately failed to discredit, JFK. When I found out that he was directing the new film about Edward Snowden, I took notice, but made no immediate plans to get to the theater. When I tried, and failed, to get through a long, tedious hit piece on the website Slate.com, however, Snowden was elevated to the “must see” list. Someone didn’t want me to watch it. Was it the new JFK?
Snowden, I’m sorry to say, isn’t the new JFK. It probably won’t change the national conversation about the NSA, CIA, and online privacy. It is, however, an excellent film, which, in spite of its flaws, succeeds in humanizing Edward Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsey Mills. In fact, it probably does more. Oliver Stone’s film managed to convince me, at least, that Edward Snowden neither a traitor nor a right wing, libertarian crank, but a hero, a highly principled young man who was tempted by money and power, but ultimately decided not to get along by going along. If Snowden isn’t quite Salvador or JFK, it’s probably better than Platoon, the film it most closely resembles, and the one that got Oliver Stone his Best Picture Oscar.
First of all, let’s get Snowden’s major weakness out of the way. In his excellent 2015 film The Big Short, director Adam McKay demonstrated how you could boil a bafflingly complex, yet dull issue like mortgage fraud down into a crisp, entertaining cinematic experience. Oliver Stone doesn’t quite have McKay’s knack as an ideological tour guide. There’s nothing in Snowden quite as effective as the scene in The Big Short where Ryan Gosling manages to explain the 2008 financial crisis in under ninety seconds with nothing more than a pile of blocks. I came out of the film with the impression that the NSA can collect and distribute – almost always to unprincipled, and unelected government bureaucrats — anything and everything ever put into digital form, and that the whole process is destructive to my freedom, and even to my sanity, but I don’t think I could explain exactly what Snowden revealed that we didn’t already know.
The good news is that it doesn’t really matter. Oliver Stone goal isn’t to present us with an NSA for Dummies book, but to dramatize the ideological journey of Edward Snowden from highly conflicted young patriot to exiled dissident. The best thing about the film is the performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Like Platoon’s Chris Taylor, Edward Snowden initially wants to serve his country, to fight terrorism the way his 1960s counterpart wanted to fight communism, but Levitt has a much tougher job than Charlie Sheen. Platoon’s fictional dramatization of the My Lai Massacre let Private Taylor know in no uncertain terms that something was very wrong with his country. There’s not a lot of debate after you’ve seen American soldiers slaughter a whole village of innocent civilians. You either rebel, or you become a war criminal. For Edward Snodwen, the issue is a lot more complex. Snowden never questions the need for the United States government to collect intelligence on potential terrorists. The problem is that until you collect that intelligence you have no idea who’s a potential terrorist and who isn’t. So where do you draw the line? Snowden’s superiors at the NSA never even ask the question. They’ve already decided. You spy on everyone.
As Snowden, a computer genius, realizes he’s become an unwitting architect of the NSA’s gigantic surveillance state, his patriotism gives way to guilt and paranoia. A program he writes to backup data, for example, is reversed engineered and used to target people in the Middle East, including civilians, for drone attacks. An ambitious and unscrupulous CIA operative uses him set up a Pakistani banker, and seems unconcerned with all the collateral damage. The banker’s daughter attempts suicide when the CIA arranges her undocumented boyfriend to be deported back to Turkey. The private lives of people only peripherally connected with people only suspected, not convicted, of supporting terrorism come under surveillance. Eventually the secrecy and guilt associated with the intelligence community begins to drive a wedge between Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsey Mills. When the film opens, Mills, an excellent if underused Shailene Woodley, is the liberal to Snowden’s conservative. She believes that questioning the government is part of being an American. He doesn’t like people who bash their country. Midway through the film their positions are reversed, with him begging her to delete nude selfies on her computer, and her protesting that “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.”
I personally wished Lindsy Mills’ character had been better written. She starts out promising. She’s fully his intellectual equal, and easily figures out he’s working for the CIA, not the State Department. She ends up as the stereotypical “girlfriend.” Nevertheless, the script does succeed in making it clear that had it not been for his relationship with Mills, Snowden would not have rebelled. It’s not just that he’s a geek who feels lucky to be dating an attractive woman, but that the two have a genuine human connection. Snowden’s workplace, a dystopian hell where everyone spies on everyone and the employees are terrified of the boss, alienates him from himself, so much so that it sends him into a series of epileptic fits. Perhaps the best scene in the movie, in fact, is a teleconference between Snowden and his boss Corbin O’Brian. I’m not actually sure if Corbin O’Brian is a real person or a fictional character, but the name obviously evokes George Orwell’s 1984. As he rationalizes the NSA’s totalitarian overreach, O’Brian’s image, projected onto a gigantic screen, gets bigger and bigger, dwarfing the tiny Snowden, becoming a potent symbol of the surveillance state’s power against the individual. Snowden’s relationship with Mills, on the other hand, convinces him that he something to lose, “something to hide,” something to protect from the government, and more importantly, that he has the ability to resist. When he gets jealous – he’s a geek dating an attractive woman after all – and abuses his access to the NSA’s database to spy on her browsing online dating sites, he intuitively senses that he’s made a Faustian bargain. His computer skills have given him an opportunity to rise within the American intelligence community, given him access to power and privilege, but it’s clear that it will be at the cost of his soul. Snowden ends with Snowden himself, a man without a country, but also one who’s clearly regained his sanity and sense of self-respect, taking over for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, speaking into the camera as fiction almost imperceptibly gives way to current events.
Final Note: Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald appear in the film but they’re used mainly as a framing device and don’t figure prominently as characters.