We’re screwed. We the people of the United States are completely at the mercy of the military-industrial-security-telecom-financial complex, and there’s very little we can do about it. Oh, there are “enemies” such as ISIL, China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and so on, but none to compare with our own legally installed overlords, putatively entrusted to keep this country “safe.” That’s the big takeaway from Oliver Stone’s Snowden, a dramatization of the case of whistleblower Edward Snowden. If you can steel yourselves to watch it, we warn you — it’s the most alarming mainstream movie you’ll see this year, with positively soul-crushing revelations about how our government sees us.
Mind you, none of the revelations are new. Snowden — played in the Stone film by Joseph Gordon-Levitt — went public in 2013 with what he learned working as a computer expert for the NSA and CIA. While enabling covert homeland spy operations, drone strikes, and the like, Snowden saw that the national security apparatus was conducting more extensive surveillance on Americans than on foreign “terror” suspects. His squeal caused an uproar at the time, but the hubbub eventually died down and life went on. Three years ago, investigative filmmaker Laura Poitras’ documentary Citizenfour laid out Snowden’s case very clearly. But documentaries expressing outrage about crimes committed by governments against ordinary people are commonplace, and relatively few moviegoers saw it.
That’s why Stone’s narrative, released by Open Road Films, needs to be strong and well made. Snowden’s courageous conscientiousness, very much in the spirit of such outlaw truth-seekers as Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning, has little measurable effect on the price of eggs in Oakland. The intrusions he warns us about aren’t as dramatic as the 9/11 attack or televised beheadings in the desert. The missions on which Snowden works are secret, effectively beyond the view of elected officials. But it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that unlimited government snooping on e-mails and cell phones (with the cooperation of telecom companies) infringes on all our basic civil liberties. As Gordon-Levitt’s Snowden points out, even the most innocent person has something to hide. The private affairs of almost every man, woman, and child in North America are within easy reach. George Orwell was right: The war, any war, is waged by the government against its own subjects and is designed to be continuous.
The action centers on the marathon 2013 debriefing session in a Hong Kong hotel room, with Snowden spilling the beans to documentarian Poitras (Melissa Leo) and reporters Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quino) and Ewan MacAskil (Tom Wilkinson). The damning evidence comes in flashback. The screenplay — written by director Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, adapted from a book by Anatoly Kucherena and Luke Harding — shows Snowden as a straight-arrow autodidact (he never finished high school) who first joined the CIA out of patriotism but was eventually repulsed by the callousness of colleagues such as his boss, played to a hilt by Rhys Ifans.
Veteran topical muckraker Stone (Born on the Fourth of July; JFK; World Trade Center) has not lost his knack for examining the human side of intricate public policy issues. The realization dawns on Snowden slowly, with each new “anti-terrorist” measure treading closer to the complete economic and social control deemed necessary from above. As one character explains it: “Secrecy is security. Security is victory.” Freedom or security? You can’t have both.
Gordon-Levitt plays Snowden as a natural idealist, but it’s the role of his wife Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) that truly resonates. She’s the civilian real-life anchor, the perfect neutral observer of the stress reflected on Snowden’s face, an ordinary citizen who has absolutely no idea, but learns her lesson. Nicolas Cage, Ben Schnetzer, Scott Eastwood, Leo, and especially Ifans, as the archetypal spook, contribute vital character pieces to the mosaic of fear. Stone the gadfly has always specialized in telling truth to power, with the vital human interest firmly in tow. Snowden at first appears to be the workmanlike chronicle of an unhappy camper. But the disillusioned technocrat finally emerges as a uniquely American dissident. You may be seized by the desire to throw away your mobile phone as you leave the theater.