I just saw Oliver Stone's Snowden. It's an excellent film, no doubt, and also an important rebuttal to ongoing efforts by propagandists to limit America's conversation to who Edward Snowden is, rather than what this whistleblower revealed.
By contrast with Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, which focused on the intense days during which Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and Ewen MacAskill worked with Snowden in Hong Kong on how and what to publish based on Snowden’s archive, Snowden covers much more of what events led up to that historic Hong Kong meeting. The movie opens with Snowden in army training, training he had to abandon because of stress fractures in both legs. “But don’t worry,” a military doctor reassures him, in a nice touch, “There are other ways you can serve your country.”
We then see his deepening romance with Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley, and his deepening doubts about the constitutionality of the bulk surveillance programs he’s involved in. Good drama always involves conflicting motivations and character revealed under the pressure of events, and in that regard Snowden delivers. It depicts a man with a prestigious job, the esteem of his colleagues and superiors, a relationship with a woman he loves, and overall a great life and a great future--who has to choose between all of these things, on the one hand, and the stirrings of his conscience, on the other. Even if it had been fiction, this would have been a great story. That it really happened only increases its dramatic appeal.
I thought the cast was great. Joseph Gordon-Levitt sounds so much like Snowden it’s uncanny, and although I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of physical resemblance, somehow Gordon-Levitt captured the mannerisms and affect in a way that made the portrayal completely convincing. And casting an actor best known for playing a half human, half Vulcan to play Glenn Greenwald was inspired. Not only is there some physical resemblance between Zachary Quinto and Greenwald, Quinto did a nice job channeling a guy who I think brings a unique blend of passion and logic to his award-winning journalism.
I liked the way Stone and his fellow screenwriter, Kieran Fitzgerald, hinted at sympathy for Snowden among some of his colleagues. This struck me as likely true. It’s one thing if you’re a careerist who’s spent a lifetime subordinating yourself to a culture of extreme secrecy and rationalizing away any stirrings of vestigial conscience. For younger people in intelligence, I have a feeling Snowden’s actions might have produced more admiration than hate. There’s some evidence for this theory, I’m glad to say. Courage is contagious.
Now that I've seen the movie, I'm doubly surprised that Stone claimed in this Jason Leopold interview not to be an activist. If not, he’s doing a damn fine imitation of one.
Oh, and make sure you stay through the credits. 'Nuf said.
So the movie succeeded splendidly as popular entertainment. But there’s another level worth discussing, too.
Logically, it shouldn’t particularly matter who Snowden is. His background, his formative experiences, his motivations, his life—none of these is relevant compared to what we’ve learned from him: that the US government developed and deployed an unprecedented and illegal system of mass surveillance, foreign and domestic; that the head of the US intelligence apparatus was lying about this system in sworn testimony before a Senate oversight committee; that the NSA has been subverting the very encryption standards upon which Internet security—banking, shopping, medical, everything—depends. And so much more. In the face of government actions as toxic to democracy as these, who brought the actions to our attention seems of distinctly secondary importance.
And yet, I know as a novelist that we humans are wired to focus more on who than we are than what. If I can get you to care sufficiently deeply about my characters, for example, I can afflict them with only the most trivial travails and you’ll still be entertained. Conversely, if you don’t care about my characters, I can put in play the fate of all of civilization and you probably won’t even finish the book. There’s something about our species that makes us understand “what” at least partially through the prism of “who.” This is why so many people give the candidate of their preferred party so much latitude to violate their own party’s stated principles. When your party’s the one doing it, it just feels different.
So it's no surprise that government propagandists and their media shills have been so intent on trying to smear Snowden. If the national conversation Snowden started focuses on what he revealed, the government loses. But if the government can instead get people to focus on who he is, by smearing him as a Russian or Chinese agent (or both), by calling him a narcissist, by screeching that he has blood on his hands and has caused grave damage to national security, then simply because of the way we’re wired, we’ll be inclined to dismiss or at least to discount the value of what we’ve learned from him.
Which is why it's great Snowden the movie is so effective at portraying a man of extraordinary conscience, courage, and conviction. The more people empathize with the man, the more receptive they will be to his message. The better they'll understand that what undermines America's security isn’t radical transparency, which in any event is nothing but a scare-mongering fantasy, but rather radical secrecy, which is the real order of the day. The more they'll appreciate that it's perverse to focus on whatever laws an individual whistleblower may have broken, while ignoring the unprecedented and sustained governmental law-breaking the whistleblower in question revealed.
It's also great (and no coincidence) that the movie coincides with the campaign by the ACLU, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch to persuade President Obama to pardon Snowden. Even with this great film alongside it, will the campaign succeed? I doubt it. But by spurring a national conversation about whether Snowden should be pardoned, the campaign has taken the initiative in framing the debate. This is doubly pleasing because for the most part, progressives are terrible at this sort of tactical communication.
The primary objective might fail, but the metamessage remains: if so many civil rights and human rights groups, and so many prominent citizens, have called on Obama to pardon Snowden (you can add your voice here), then what the government’s been saying about him has to be at least partly off-base. He can't be all that bad. And if he’s not all that bad, maybe he's worth listening to.
A movie as well done as Snowden will be instrumental in that regard. It focuses on the man. But in doing so, it lays the groundwork for a more widespread understanding of the government criminality Snowden revealed, and why it's essential that We the People get to decide for ourselves just how much government surveillance we want in our country.