I feel the modern media has a big focus on personalities,” Edward Snowden tells journalist Glenn Greenwald in Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour. “I’m a little concerned the more we focus on that, the more they’re gonna use that as a distraction.” Snowden, a computer contractor with the National Security Agency, was meeting with Greenwald and Poitras in a Hong Kong hotel room in June 2013 as they prepared to publish a series of news stories revealing that the U.S. government collected electronic data from millions of citizens foreign and domestic. The young whistle-blower couldn’t have been more right about the media—after revealing his identity, he instantly became the story’s focus, pilloried as a traitor by nationalists and celebrated as a hero by civil libertarians. According to a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, Snowden adamantly resisted selling the screen rights to his life story, but he must have reconciled himself to the idea of being a personality, because he’s given his blessing to Oliver Stone’s new biopic Snowden, and even appears onscreen from Moscow in the movie’s concluding moments.
Any multiplex release that informs people about the NSA’s bulk-data collection is OK by me, but Snowden can be a chore to watch because it focuses so narrowly on a personality and because that personality lacks any apparent, uh, personality. Joseph Gordon- Levitt, a nimble and intelligent performer, works overtime to animate Snowden, a shy computer nerd who dropped out of high school and washed out of the army, then bounced back as a rising young talent in the U.S. government’s cybersecurity administration and ultimately committed one of the most serious security breaches in American history. Stone devotes numerous scenes to Snowden’s romance with his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, portrayed by Shailene Woodley as a sexy, insightful, vibrantly alive young woman, proof positive that Ed can’t be such a dud after all. In fact there’s more in the movie about their relationship than about any of the various programs Snowden exposed.
In many ways Snowden seems like a liberal counterpart to Clint Eastwood’s Sully, starring Tom Hanks as the heroic airline pilot who staged a perfect water landing of a damaged plane on the Hudson River in 2009. Both Snowden and Chesley Sullenberger are lionized as simple men of action, though they’re so bland that only the most genial actors can warm them up onscreen. Both real-life stories received saturation coverage in the news media, so anyone not comatose at the time already knows exactly how they turned out. And both movies are caught up in the business of national mythmaking, raising up idols for their respective red- and blue-state viewers. At the end of Sully, the captain and his copilot face hostile questioning at a hearing of the National Transportation Safety Board, but they come out on top and collect a glorious ovation from the assembled professionals. Snowden concludes with a robot rolling onstage at a lecture hall, its screen bearing a live feed of Snowden from Russia as he basks in the audience’s applause.
Stone faces a greater challenge than Eastwood, however, because Snowden is a divisive figure, and the idiot-level media narrative surrounding him turns on whether or not his motives were honorable. “For me it all comes down to state power versus the people’s ability to meaningfully oppose that power,” Snowden explains in Citizenfour. Stone sets out to trace the life journey that culminated in that conviction and, not surprisingly, pulls out of Snowden’s past one of his own favorite myths—common to Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), and JFK (1991)—of an American innocent whose patriotism is tested when he learns about the country’s darker deeds. As Snowden, Poitras (Melissa Leo), Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), and Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) hammer out their stories in the hotel, Stone flashes back to Snowden’s swift rise through the ranks of the CIA, where he’s being groomed for greatness by a sinister, silver-haired spymaster, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans).
Given that Snowden runs two and a quarter hours, it’s too bad that screenwriters Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald couldn’t have worked in a little more substance about the programs Snowden revealed. There’s no clear sense of how STELLAR WIND, launched by the NSA in the wake of 9/11 to collect all available phone and Internet data, eventually led to PRISM, a sweeping bulk-data collection program that the agency claimed was secretly fed by Google, Facebook, Apple, and other online giants. Stone and Fitzgerald touch on PRISM with a chilling scene in which Snowden’s work buddy Gabriel (Ben Schnetzer) breezily shows him how to sift through unsuspecting citizens’ e-mails, live chats, file transfers, and search histories. But Snowden won’t tell you anything about the OCEO (Offensive Cyber Effects Operations), launched by President Obama to wage cyberattacks around the world, or the NSA’s project with British intelligence to bug undersea fiber-optic cables that transmit millions of international communications.
Instead we get “The Love Song of Edward J. Snowden,” with flashbacks showing how Mills transformed his drab existence but then began to chafe against the secrecy and stress of his government career. They meet online (of course), bonding over the anime fantasy Ghost in the Shell, and then in person, strolling across the National Mall for some arthritic banter about their opposing politics. Mills is a passionate progressive and Snowden is a Rand Paul conservative; they’re supposed to be like Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, but they’re more like Katharine Hepburn and a box of Cheerios. An amateur photographer, Mills spends every available moment snapping sympathetic photos of Snowden, which Stone drops into the action as black-and-white freeze-frames. Various candy-apple scenes show the young lovers hiking together; their last flashback takes place on a misty ocean shoreline in Hawaii, as Snowden prepares to make his fateful trip to Hong Kong and Mills pleads, “Can you at least tell me where you’re going?”
Early in the movie, when Snowden is interviewing for a job with the slimy O’Brian, he lists his cultural touchstones as “Joseph Campbell, Star Wars, Thoreau, Ayn Rand.” The last two names make sense given Snowden’s strong feelings of personal responsibility; the first two suggest he has a weakness for mythmaking himself, so no one should be surprised that he’s graduated from private citizen to major motion picture. As the movie screens nationwide, human rights organizations are campaigning to win Snowden a presidential pardon so he can return to the U.S. without facing prosecution. Once again the story is turning into a thumbs-up/thumbs-down debate over a private individual, overshadowing the web of deceit that pulled governments and private businesses into a fearsome surveillance state. Just as Snowden cautioned, he’s become a distraction—and that’s a hell of a thing to be in your own biopic. v