The first good thing to know about “Snowden” is that it is not one of director Oliver Stone’s wildly theoretical conspiracy films like “JFK.”
Instead, while coming across as very sympathetic and understanding of the decision of Edward Snowden to illegally steal and then expose the classified files that the National Security Agency (NSA) and CIA obtained illegally from the personal e-mails, phones and computers of millions of citizens of America and other countries, it feels much more like a straight-forward dramatization of the actual events that culminated in 2013.
In that regard, the two-hour, 15-minute “Snowden” is less dynamic and intense than the re-creation of events in the 96-minute “Sully,” but rather more of a methodical, enlightening and fascinating walk-through of the touchstone moments that led to Snowden’s final act of defiance.
The Oscar-winning 2014 documentary “Citizenfour” chronicles Snowden’s secret revelations to a couple selected journalists in a Hong Kong hotel room over several days.
“Snowden” re-creates much of that footage and uses it as the base around which Stone builds Snowden’s personal backstory, including his relationship with girlfriend Lindsay Mills, a photographer who lives with Snowden through most of this ordeal and now again in Moscow.
Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays the now 33 year-old Snowden, said after the national Fathom Events public screening September 14 called “Snowden Live” that Snowden’s parents came up to him after the premiere in New York on Sept. 13 and thanked him for his accurate portrayal of their son, the first-time Gordon-Levitt has experienced that kind of personal feedback.
Snowden, participating in last night’s discussion live via satellite from his exile home in Moscow, laughingly said he hoped he was a little more understanding than he was portrayed in the film with his girlfriend during intense days with her in Japan in 2011 when he first began getting extremely uncomfortable with what he was learning about the U.S. government’s illegal practices of personal invasion.
“What do you say about a scene that shows you as the world’s worst boyfriend?” he joked.
The movie, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald based on the books The Snowden Files by Luke Harding and Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena, covers a nine-year post-9/11 period during which Snowden initially enlisted in the military but was dismissed when he broke both of his fragile legs. Still wanting to serve his country, and get what he considers “cool” top security clearance, he lands a job with the CIA. Being quickly promoted to top anti-terrorism cyber assignments in the lab instead of the field work he sought, he begins to have his eyes opened to the law-skirting tactics being employed by the security agency to track down suspected terrorists by looking into any and all personal activity of anyone even remotely connected to the suspect, and anyone remotely connected to them. This activity includes activating cameras on laptops, even if they are turned off.
As “60 Minutes” and other news outlets have reported, other security agency officials, including Thomas Andrews Drake, tried questioning these practices years earlier than Snowden by going through the “proper” channels and informing their superiors, only to have their careers and personal lives destroyed for blowing the whistle.
“They did everything the way they were supposed to in order to expose the same programs I was trying to reveal, but 10 years earlier,” Snowden said in his post-movie comments last night. “Without he and others, I could not have done what I did.”
In the film, it’s only after Snowden sees what happened to his predecessors and spoke with them, that he decided to make the decision that he did. Even then, he did not spill everything he knew and all the files he stole all over the Internet, but carefully informed only a couple of trusted journalists and provided them only with the information and files needed to corroborate his story.
(This week Snowden asked President Obama for a pardon, a topic not raised in the movie or the panel discussion.)
Gordon-Levitt is terrific; he nails Snowden’s look, mannerisms, and speech pattern. Shailene Woodley is convincing as Snowden’s supportive girlfriend who is never told anything and thus gets periodically frustrated with Snowden’s frequent work-related globe-trotting location changes and his increasing stress without explanation for any of it. And the movie is filled with solid supporting roles by Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Schnetzer, LaKeith Lee Stanfield, Rhys Ifans and Nicolas Cage.
The film also features a powerful original song by Peter Gabriel called “The Veil” (music video below)…
Stone said during the Fathom Events screening that he met with Snowden nine times in making the film, and that while Snowden was initially “wary,” a trust was built over the course of the period from January to June.
When asked during the panel discussion what people should do to protect their privacy, Snowden said that while there are some steps one can take to make your passwords and access to your equipment more secure, “The only way to stop the NSA is through the political process.” While not advising people to “become that guy at the Thanksgiving dinner table” who spends too much time pontificating about politics, he encouraged everyone to speak up and tell others when you see something wrong. “If you see something, say something.” He added that too much time is being spent during the current Presidential election campaign on the candidates calling each other names. “We need more discussions about issues of substance.”
“Snowden” ranks close to the caliber of importance and quality of some of Stone’s best films such as “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July” and is a thought-provoking cautionary tale on the scale of Stone’s “Wall Street,” albeit without any of the memorable lines of dialogue or cinematically dramatic moments.
Perhaps Stone was being careful not to be too preachy because he could easily have dotted or at least closed the movie with very pointed messages on the topics of personal privacy and governments overstepping their bounds, especially since he already ends the film by expertly transitioning from Snowden comments depicted by Gordon-Levitt to Snowden himself doing the speaking.
But the most eloquently powerful and thoughtful comments from Snowden on Wednesday came during his post-movie panel discussion, when he challenged the largely-held notion of having nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide:
“The origin of this is in Nazi propaganda,” Snowden said. Noting that privacy is one of our core fundamental rights, he continued, “Privacy is not about something to hide but something to protect. If we don’t have privacy we are losing the ability to make mistakes and be ourselves.”
He drew applause from the audience in attendance at the panel based in New York when he completed his thought by saying, “Not caring about your privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”
Now that should have been a great and memorable line in the movie.
— By Scott Hettrick