Just the other day, there was President Barack Obama on the telly, giving his farewell address to the American people. “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted,” he said gravely. “It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy. … I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change, but in yours.”
A grand speech it was, but the irony was more than a little bitter, since earlier that day I had just watched Oliver Stone’s new film “Snowden,” about the rogue NSA contractor who in 2013, believing in his ability to bring about change, revealed to the press the existence of a secret and often extra-legal mass surveillance program known as PRISM. Suddenly people realized that the government had total access to their emails, cellphones and information shared on social networks, all with the cooperation of Big Tech.
Included in the film is a 2008 stump speech by then-presidential-candidate Obama, calling for “no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens.” But Edward Snowden stood up and exposed precisely that, and as a reward for his efforts, he’s now living in exile in Moscow, under threat of being “disappeared” into a windowless cell. Indeed, contrary to his rhetoric, Obama waged a relentless campaign against whistleblowers, using the Espionage Act to prosecute any who dared to question the excesses of the security state. (See the excellent documentary “Silenced.”)
Is Snowden the “traitor,” “hacker” and “narcissist” that the Obama administration has painted him to be? (The new President Donald Trump, for his part, wants him “executed.”) Stone’s film seeks to counteract that weaponized narrative by simply tracing the man’s motivations and showing the price he paid for letting his fellow citizens know their government was spying on them.
“Snowden” depicts a patriotic, fairly conservative young man who had enlisted in the special forces before an injury led him to serve his country at the CIA instead. While working in Geneva as a network security expert he encounters invasive digital eavesdropping. Instead of targeting just suspected terrorists, the NSA was collecting the electronic communications of virtually everybody, everywhere, on the assumption that this metadata could potentially be used in a terrorist investigation. Meanwhile, the director of national intelligence was telling Congress that no such surveillance was happening domestically.
Snowden faces a long battle with his conscience, waiting to see whether the Obama administration would act on its words or not, before finally arranging a clandestine meeting in Hong Kong with a trio of journalists, where he spills the beans (an event recorded in real time in the documentary “Citizen Four”).
Stone, who tends toward volatile male leads — “The Doors”, “Natural Born Killers” — griped during the shoot how hard it was to make a heroic figure out of such a “robot nerd.” Joseph Gordon Levitt gives a stolid and precise performance in the lead role , but Stone warms him up by focusing on Snowden’s long-term romantic relationship with dancer Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). It shows us what he had to lose: a comfortable life in Hawaii with a woman who loved him. It takes some tortured thinking to assume that someone would throw that away for “celebrity” status, especially the sort where you can barely be seen in public.
“Snowden” is one of Stone’s more restrained films, but in attempting to make it more of a multiplex spy thriller, he indulges in just enough poetic license for his ideological opponents to beat him over the head with. (Former NSA Deputy Director Chris Inglis has identified a few exaggerations and errors in the film, but this nit-picking is aimed at corrupting the film’s overall message.) In today’s hyper-partisan political environment though, the idea that a Hollywood film can change people’s minds — that the audience is open to engagement — seems a bit outdated. Stone probably could have swayed more hearts and minds by spending a fraction of the film’s budget on creating internet memes instead.