Oliver Stone’s Snowden (his best in years) is a movie with a mission: to remove the stock-villain obscurantism that the US Government has wrapped around whistleblower Edward Snowden and humanize him. His Snowden is really a combination of a coming of age and a love story. We follow the life of his protagonist (played earnestly and carefully by Joseph Gordon-Levitt ) as it evolves and metastasizes from the easy patriotism of gung-ho, unquestioning all-American innocence to the difficult patriotism of the questioning and informed citizen.
Stone has structured the movie into two narrative time frames: in one of them we’re with Snowden, now a fugitive, hidden away in a hotel room in Hong Kong with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo of The Big Short), Glen Greenwald (a bristling performance of restrained anger from Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill from The Guardian (Tom Wilkinson). There, racing against the immanence of capture, they craft the public revelations of his pilfered security documents. But the main body of the narrative follows Snowden’s life from his earliest days with the CIA, as it seeks to answer the dual questions: what happened to turn this hand-on-heart believer of American exceptionalism into a ‘traitor’? How did it come to this? And, the bigger question: what is the meaning of patriotism?
To answer this, Snowden unfolds along the criss-crossing paths of Edward’s private and professional life. In his private life, he falls in love with Lindsay Mills, a pretty, liberal, photographer, (Shailene Woodley of The Fault in Our Stars and Allegiant in a role that finally matches her talent) even as, in his professional life, as a highly valued intelligence analyst, he’s falling in love with his other ‘lover’, Corbin O-Brian (a menacing performance from Rhys Ifans), his boss and mentor at the CIA. It is this boss who explains the big picture of the job to him: it’s not about uncovering jihadi plots and, as he notes, “Standard Oil plans for stealing the oil supplies” but about the Russians and the Chinese.
But as Snowden rises in the ranks, privy to more and more of the dark web of professional secrets and deceits (and as a result more and more disturbed by what he knows), the toll on his private life becomes acute. The innocent joire de vivre of his love is slowly transformed into a life of bickering, and distrust. It is as though his increasing experience as a spy, a professional liar, poisons the relationship.
The professional and the private merge in two crisis, ah-ha moments. The first is when he, and a group of his young colleagues (under the leadership of a character played by Scott Eastwood, Clint’s son) realize that the government is spying twice as much on US (and German and ‘friendly allies’) citizens than on the Russians and Chinese. And the second is when he’s reassured by his mentor Corbin that his fears about Lindsay’s fidelity are unfounded. Snowden is just another citizen whose e-mails, and social media conversations and privacy have been hacked and is under the daily remorseless surveillance of Big Brother.
For, to the government, privacy means secrecy; spying is snooping; its surveillance extends to everyone everywhere anytime. And the secret service is only too happy to lie to the government’s elected officials about it all.
It is the totality of this deception, the limitlessness of the snooping and the callous disregard for the individual citizens’ constitutional rights that drive Snowden over the top…and that redefines his own self-harming expression of patriotism.
The journey from innocence to experience finally ends in the hero’s exile, first in a lonely room in an airport and finally somewhere in Russia. Throughout the movie, Stone is at pains to remind us that this is all ‘real’; and the movie ends with a ‘real-life’ interview between the actual Edward Snowden and Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian (who had the balls to break the story). This Greek tragedy is of course still being played out. But there’s little doubt that the honour, nobility and selfless integrity of this one wandering Odysseus will win out against the patience and implacable amorality of the omniscient State.
Stone’s thesis suggests that once belief in the moral rectitude of said State (the world view of the young Snowden as CIA recruit) disappears, we disabused citizens, become as isolated and exiled as this lonely young man. No more “I am…Spartacus”; to most of the increasingly embattled liberal world, “I am…Snowden”
(Apart from the strong performance of Shailene Woodley, there was another – surprising – strong cameo from Nicolas Cage, as a washed up, embittered operative; a man who’d seen too much for too long. Snowden is also a movie whose gripping story-telling was well crafted by its editors, Alex Marquez and Lee Percy)
SNOWDEN. Dir: Oliver Stone. With: Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Shailene Woodley. Melissa Leo. Zachary Quinto. Rhys Ifans. Nicolas Cage. Writers: Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone from the books by Anatoly Kuchera and Luke Harding. Editors: Alex Marquez and Lee Percy