Movie Review: Snowden (2016)
I’ll give Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” this: It made me paranoid in a way that Laura Poitras’ documentary about Edward Snowden, “CitizenFour,” did not. Afterwards, I wanted to go home and cover up my computer camera.
A few things I learned from this biopic:
- Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was initially conservative. He was a gungho Bush-era patriot who dismissed the press as “the liberal media” as late as 2006.
- Far from being a low-level, temp tech, he was a boy genius, coveted in the halls of the NSA and CIA, who helped create entire backup programs in our cyber-security apparatus, even as he was questioning the morality and legality of that apparatus.
- The programs our intelligence agencies use to spy on us have really good interfaces.
We know 3) is bullshit. An anonymous Snowden colleague confirms 2) in this 2015 Forbes article. As for 1)? I haven’t found much on Snowden’s early political leanings, but aligns the character with classic Stone heroes: Charlie Sheen in “Platoon,” Tom Cruise in “Born on the Fourth of July” and Kevin Costner in “JFK.” Each is a patriot who believes he’s protecting his country; each discovers the immorality of that country and winds up believing the exact opposite of what he believed at the outset. Each is a true believer, but for both sides of the equation.
Stone isn’t big on the gray areas. His Snowden is such an innocent he’s nicknamed “Snow White” by a fellow cyber geek in Geneva, while Snowden’s CIA mentor, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), is so obviously sinister he comes off at times like a “Scooby-Doo” villain—all but rubbing his hands together. At one point, he and Snowden walk through a DC park: Snowden in casual gray hoodie, O’Brian in dark overcoat and dark fedora pulled low. At another point, in the NSA facilities in Hawaii, O’Brian chastises Snowden via video feed; but the feed is the entire wall, and O’Brian is in close-up, making him appear like Big Brother in George Orwell’s “1984.” (Apparently it’s no accident that O’Brian is named after Winston Smith’s antagonist.)
The movie is structured in flashback. As in “CitizenFour,” we’re once again stuck in the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong with Snowden, Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), and Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), as they try to tell Snowden’s story before it’s snuffed out by U.S. intelligence. The room is claustrophobic, the atmosphere paranoid. Once again, Snowden’s clothes go from white to gray to dark.
So how did Snowden reach a point where he decides to blow the whistle? Several steps.
First he witnesses the spy apparatus in Geneva—the way we’re able to see into almost anyone’s home and watch pretty girls undress. Then there’s the mess with the Swiss banker—the CIA besmirching him to turn him informant. Then there’s Stone’s realization in Tokyo that the CIA and NSA are actually more interested in promoting American business interests abroad. “Terrorism is just an excuse,” Snowden says.
But the final straw may be that “1984” moment with O’Brian. Snowden is having troubles again with his girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), and so O’Brian assures him, in a way that feels both paternal and sleazy, that he doesn’t have to worry; that she’s not sleeping around on him. The assuredness with which he says this makes the other shoe drop. The scales fall from Snowden’s eyes.
In other words, the final straw is less the collection of meta-data than the fact that he and his girlfriend are being watched. Does this do a disservice to Snowden? Personalizing it this way? In “CitizenFour,” he feared the way the modern media would make it all about the personalities. “I’m not the story here,” he said.
Despite a 134-minute runtime, “Snowden” moves quickly. We also get a stand-out performance from Gordon-Levitt. It just didn’t quite work for me. There’s too much on the girlfriend—he can’t tell her what he does, so he can’t explain what’s bothering him, so she gets upset, etc.—and not enough on the “Terrorism is just an excuse” angle. I wanted a more nuanced portrait of Snowden or a stronger argument for what he did.
Then there’s the end. Snowden, of course, winds up in Russia, where he’s giving a talk via web about privacy rights and civil liberties. And as we pan around his laptop, it’s suddenly him, the real Edward Snowden, not the actor Gordon-Levitt. And at the end of his talk, the audience stands and applauds. To thank him for his sacrifice.
And as signal to us? If so, we missed our cue.
I was at the opening night show at the SIFF Egyptian theater in Seattle, which is Liberal Central, and yet the crowd was sparse, and there was no applause. I may have heard one clap but that was it. More, I juxtaposed Stone’s ending with something that happened outside the theater before the movie started—something that to me feels more indicative of the American people for whom Edward Snowden sacrificed so much. I was standing there, waiting for Patricia, when two couples, 20s-ish, white, walked by, and one guy noticed what was playing. “The dude that revealed all those secrets?” he said in a sardonic voice. “Yeah, let’s make a movie of that.” Everyone laughed.