Edward Snowden’s story is basically the story of my generation. After 9/11, we were all scared and wanted to do anything we could to protect ourselves and the U.S. No one ever stopped to think about what we were doing to further that goal. When Bush said that Iraq had WMDs and was harboring terrorists, we all smiled and nodded and let him do whatever he wanted. Those who questioned him were traitors who just wanted to invite another 9/11.
But time still went on and the more the Bush administration did, the more people started taking a long hard look at what we were doing. The U.S. was going into nations for no reason, no plans to ensure that the area stayed safe, and ended up destroying what little infrastructure existed. A few short years after the Iraq invasion, the region was a perfect breeding grounds for groups like ISIS. And in an effort to “protect our freedoms,” we discovered that the government was frequently treating those freedoms as an inconvenience in its quest for some undefined “safety.” And then, as the government realized groups like al Qaeda were essentially destroyed and that no one group or nation posed a significant threat to our borders, it began to use this data in ways that were legally and morally reprehensible.
There are those people who still say that Snowden is a traitor who endangered American lives. Those people are wrong. Snowden disclosed important information about how U.S. citizens were being treated as the enemy by its own government. It jump started an important discussion about our nation’s future and how we the people exist as the bosses of the government, not the servants. Some people don’t want to participate in this discussion. (These are the same people who want to vote for a racist Oompa Loompa with the IQ of mustard in November.) But that doesn’t mean that we can avoid it.
That’s why it’s important that Snowden exists. It’s also why I was excited when I heard that Oliver Stone was directing it. Stone’s career has been built on films that create a desperation in its audience to speak truth to power. It’s been frustrating when he puts that passion into the wrong direction. JFK is genius in its construction but is about as insightful into history as Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But Stone wouldn’t have to invent facts for Snowden. The conspiracy already exists. All he has to do is create that feeling of passion and anger in his audiences. He succeeds.
The film starts with the moment we’re all familiar with. Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets with columnist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) to disclose the data he has smuggled from his job. We then go back to Snowden’s beginnings and how he became public enemy number one. Along the way, we also witness Snowden’s growing paranoia that is eventually proven correct.
The obvious choice would have been for Stone to focus on the deep conspiracies surrounding Snowden and how he came to fight against him. It’s like what he did with Jim Garrison in JFK. Stone was so eager to discuss the supposed”conspiracy” around Kennedy’s assassination that Garrison’s family and his effect on them was almost irrelevant to the plot. Which scene do you remember more – the scene in which Garrison’s wife yells at him for missing the family’s Easter Sunday lunch, or Garrison’s courtroom plea for truth?
What’s interesting is that Stone takes a more conservative approach at the start of Snowden. He’s mainly focused on the love story between Snowden and Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). When they meet, they have opposite worldviews. Snowden was a special forces trainee at Fort Meade before an injury forced him to leave the Army. He still sees enemies of the U.S. all around the world and wants to serve his country. Lindsay is a more bohemian woman who signs petitions protesting the war in Iraq and scoffs at Edward’s statements on the “liberal media bias.”
Mills has been a figure that is often overlooked in Snowden’s story. When the story first broke, she was depicted in a sexist manner as an example of “what Snowden gave up.” We were reduced to ogling at Mills without wondering how this was all affecting her. But Snowden gives her a greater voice. There are some arguments that seem cliched (like one in which Mills accuses Snowden of preferring work to her), but it’s far better than the coverage Mills was given by the news media.
The focus on Mills makes for an odd first act and some of the dialogue is clunky, but it did help me see the human side of Snowden. It was easy to forget that this man is a human being. Mills also acts as the sort of passive figure in finding out about the surveillance. She reacts with shock when Snowden places a band-aid over her webcam. (He claims it’s to protect her from Russian hackers.) And when Edward starts talking to her about the data the NSA is capturing, her response is “I have nothing to hide.”
Only in retrospect that we realize Stone is preparing to respond to the passiveness that have greeted Snowden in the past. He’s preparing us to be shocked by just how far the CIA and the NSA were going with their programs to “keep us safe.” One of the most effective scenes in the film has Snowden explain how the NSA casts its net by looking at people’s cell phone contacts. We see the wide net the NSA is casting and see how that technology can be abused. One scene has an agent remotely turning on a webcam – ostensibly to spy on a banker’s family, but more likely so he can watch a Muslim woman remove her burka – and pants. Once the film shifts to the NSA spying techniques, it finds a jolt of energy that doesn’t let up until the credits role.
Snowden’s symbols are not subtle, but when has Oliver Stone ever depended on subtlety to convey his point? What matters is if Stone creates the emotional feeling he’s looking to convey. Snowden accomplishes this in spades. The scenes of Snowden smuggling the data out of the headquarters is nail-bitingly tense. The scenes of him and Lindsey are touching. The moment where Snowden argues with his boss over Skype (in which his boss is projected onto a huge display that makes him look like Big Brother) is good for boiling the blood.
Overall, Snowden is such a great package that accomplishes what it set out to do that I can’t stay mad at its flaws. It’s a great example of how, to paraphrase Woodrow Wilson, history can be written with lightning. It’s also great at showing another side of Snowden. He’s removed from being a symbol and finally becomes a human being.
There are some who will like Snowden. Some will hate it and wonder why Stone is so obvious with his message. I found Snowden to be the most effective film Oliver Stone has made in more than a decade. It doesn’t beat audiences over the head with its message, but allows them to enter Snowden’s world on their terms and understand why he did what he did. That’s all any movie can hope to accomplish.