Oliver Stone, “Snowden” (2016)
Surprisingly even though I’m familiar with the story of National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden through Laura Poitras’ documentary “Citizenfour”, Oliver Stone’s biopic of Snowden’s life from 2004 to 2013, documenting his transformation from all-American patriot believing in his nation’s “exceptionalism” to political activist / whistle-blower aghast at the Big Brother surveillance being carried out by his government, turns out to be riveting in its own low-key way. That may be due to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s precise if minimalist portrayal of Snowden throughout the film, so much so that he rivals Meryl Streep as an impersonator rather than an actor. Gordon-Levitt is ably supported by a committed cast that includes Nicolas Cage, Tom Wilkinson and Zachary Quinto.
The film opens with Snowden bailed up in a Hong Kong hotel being met by then-Guardian newspaper columnist Glenn Greenwald (Quinto) and documentary film-maker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), later to be joined by Greenwald’s fellow Guardian scribbler Ewan MacAskill (Wilkinson). In his room, Snowden explains to the trio the extent of NSA spying on the American public through Internet, mobile phone and social media conversations and interactions. Not only does the NSA spy on the US public but also on the conversations that take place in other countries, in Germany, Japan, Brazil and, well, the rest of the world. At this point, the film zips over to Snowden’s early days training for the US Army reserve during which time the young man is a strong “my country, right or wrong” believer, convinced that the US is and has always been a force for democracy and freedom. After injuries cut short his military career, Snowden applies to join the US Central Intelligence Agency where he meets his instructor and mentor Corbyn O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) who posts him to Geneva, Tokyo and Hawaii.
In the course of his work, Snowden discovers how cynical the CIA and later the NSA are (through O’Brien and various work colleagues) in their regard for the rule of law where it conflicts with the US government’s desire to know what everyone is thinking and doing, so as to pinpoint vulnerabilities in people’s lives that could be used to manipulate and blackmail them for its own advantage, and to influence and direct people’s conversations towards positions it favours. Information and knowledge are commodities to be used for commercial and military gain, and secrecy is the security wrapped around the commodities. Confronted by what he experiences as a CIA employee and later as a contractor working for the NSA and Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden makes plans to reveal what he knows of NSA surveillance.
Threaded through the narrative of how Snowden changes and matures over the years is his romance with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) which perhaps gets too much screen time for a plot device aiming to humanise Snowden and show how much he gives up or loses in his quest to be true to himself and his ideals. Even so, the romance is interesting in how it highlights Snowden’s growing paranoia at his own life being the topic of NSA scrutiny and issues of privacy invasion, where the limit between revealing one’s own life on social media ends and where others’ invasion of that life begins. As a photographer and acrobatic performer posting intimate images (including semi-nude images) of herself on Facebook and other social media, Mills is an example of this dilemma surrounding privacy.
The film is done very well with excellent cinematography, smooth transitions and steady pacing, and the cast shows commitment, with Gordon-Levitt giving the performance of his life. Where the film is limited is in its narrow focus on Snowden’s life and point of view, to the extent that viewers may get an incorrect impression that all the CIA and NSA surveillance began with the events of 11 September 2001, when the World Trade Center twin towers and a US Department of Defense building were hit by three hijacked passenger jets and a fourth passenger jet crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers on that plane apparently fought with hijackers. The reality is that the US has always jealously tried to preserve its status as the world’s leading political, economic and military power since 1945. The nation’s “exceptionalism” stems from propaganda it has spread through its corporate media and entertainment industries and Edward Snowden is not the only victim who fell for that propaganda hook, line and sinker. How and why the surveillance state began and developed into the all-encompassing Panopticon it is, is far beyond the film’s grasp. Another problem is the relative upbeat ending in which Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance are made public without any apparent hindrance; the reality is that after the events portrayed in the film, Greenwald left The Guardian and The Guardian itself under a new chief editor deteriorated into stenographer journalism.
Nevertheless, if “Snowden” can encourage viewers to think about the extent of government surveillance in their own lives, how it influences their thinking and behaviour, and the direction of society, and to investigate how it began (so that they can begin to fight it), it will have fulfilled its aim of raising social awareness.