When a National Security Agency (NSA) employee discovers the agency is routinely spying on American citizens, in violation of the US Constitution, he risks all to tell the American public. Based on a true story. Snowden credits: [Dir: Oliver Stone/ Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo/ 134 min/ Biography, Drama, Thriller/ Search & Seizure, Working for Government]
The earlier Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour told the story of Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing heroics. Snowden adds to that the back-story of Snowden himself – emphasizing in particular his patriotism and his ethical character, two facets that would gradually come into conflict with the dawning realization that the US government was operating in routine violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Among other things, we learn here that Snowden joined Special Forces training after 9/11 and was trained for five months before breaking a leg so severely that he was (reluctantly) washed out; that he’s something of a computer whiz; and that he comes from a patriotic family. You can see why the intelligence community would want to hire him.
But once on the job, he encountered an unexpected ethical dilemma. It seemed the US government was tracking electronic communications so absolutely that it might be in violation of the Constitution. The issue was initially finessed with an explanation to him that special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts (FISA) issued the required warrants, but it later came into question just how legitimate those secret “courts” really are. In the end, Snowden decided that the American people had a right to know just how complete domestic surveillance had become, spilled the beans, and found himself on the run, hiding out in of all places…Russia.
Of course, Edward Snowden couldn’t have been the first person in the intelligence community to realize something was wrong, but he was the first one to do something about it. Why? The answer to that is alluded here as well. He is asked in an interview to name the authors that have influenced him. He answers “Joseph Campbell and Ayn Rand.” The reviewer replies “One man can stop the motor of the world,” referencing Atlas Shrugged, and Snowden nods in agreement. Joseph Campbell is the author of The Hero’s Journey. It would seem that Snowden is the hero of his own journey, and self-consciously so. He tried to join Special Forces after 9/11 to save the country he loves; when that didn’t work out, he joined the intelligence community to the same end; and when he saw the Constitution being violated, he did something about it.
Snowden’s story is indeed film-worthy, but while I enjoyed this telling, it unfortunately does have two flaws you have to get past.
First, it’s straight-up hero worship on the part of Oliver Stone, and while there is plenty of heroism to tell, the film goes over the top at times, portraying Snowden’s battle as perfect good guy allied with a cool crowd of hip, progressive techies versus their almost cartoonishly conservative, Orwellian boss. Some credibility was unfortunately lost in this lack of subtlety.
Second, I would count it as a gaffe the odd absence of much mention of the Obama administration. It was Obama who made Snowden an ‘Enemy of the State’ in the first place; it was Obama who tried to capture him; and it was Obama and his paid staff who, after he escaped, tried to spin the story against Snowden, the truth of which they nearly succeeded in covering up. Gee, do you think if Bush had been President all that might have gotten more focus?
Those flaws aside, this is a well-made film and a fitting tribute to Snowden. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in the lead, gives a remarkably Snowden-like performance, and the film helped me to better understand the man himself. This would make a great double-feature with Citizenfour.
External Reviews of Snowden
“Oliver Stone’s best movie in years…Stone keeps this tech-heavy tale moving along at a snappy pace, and Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography gives it a rich sheen. The supporting actors — especially Woodley — provide a lively balance to Gordon-Levitt’s appropriately recessive performance.”
“Hero worshippers should be predisposed to Oliver Stone’s Snowden, opening this Friday. They will not be disappointed…[It] may be Stone’s best picture.”
“The most important and galvanizing political drama by an American filmmaker in years.”
“Jospeh Gordon-Levitt is excellent in the central role, exuding a quiet seriousness of a thoughtful man who finds his belief system increasingly questioned.”
–Eye for Film