Directed by Oliver Stone
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo
In cinemas now
How often in do people stand up to the behemoth that is the mighty US military-industrial-spy complex and get away with it? Not often enough.
But if you count living in limbo in Russia — unable to fly to asylum in a third country once his passport was cancelled, unable to return home to the US without fear of a rigged, secret trial on espionage charges — as getting away with it, Edward Snowden did just that.
And by carrying out a huge leak of classified information, the National Security Agency whistleblower exposed the unprecedented surveillance of US and global citizens. It exposed the reach of previously secret government and corporate data collection.
Oliver Stone's newly released feature film Snowden recounts the story in a dramatisation that takes us on a journey from Snowden’s administrative discharge from the military with fractures in both shins in about 2004, to his career in the CIA and then as an intelligence contractor.
It takes us to momentous events of 2013, when Snowden passed information about the PRISM program and other surveillance activities to journalists Laura Poitras, Glen Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill.
The story of what happened next is known, so it is no spoiler to speak of Snowden eluding capture in Hong Kong and being granted first one then three years’ asylum in Russia, where he remains now.
The film is well made, acted and scripted. It portrays Snowden’s transition from a patriot believing in the rightness of his country’s actions to one deeply troubled by the impact of surveillance activities. Justified in the name of counter-terrorism, in reality the US spy machine is designed to serve US power.
The final straw for Snowden was the realisation that unimpeded data collection by US federal spy agencies and their contractors is primarily focused, not on the US’s rivals or enemies, but on US citizens.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a convincing Snowden, and Shailene Woodley as Snowden’s partner Lindsay Mills. Their political differences (she’s a liberal who signs an anti-war petition; he’s a conservative who’s sure the Iraq war is right) make for an amusing foil to show that Snowden was no radical intent on harming US security.
It pitches Snowden to a US audience as someone who simply takes seriously the US constitution’s Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures, and who was prepared to defend it at great personal cost.
The impact of the life of a spy — especially one who becomes convinced his government is doing something fundamentally flawed — is played out in the strain on their relationship. Snowden decides not to tell Mills what he has found or what he plans to do to protect her from being an accomplice in his data breach.
Snowden’s relationships with others in the spy community add another interesting and personal dimension — although it’s the nature of the biopic genre that we’re left wondering where creative license begins and ends. However, the film’s portrayal of a macho military culture and casual sexism in the spy community feels unquestionably real.
This film has already begun to have an impact on audiences. It is likely to be more powerful for those not already familiar with the story, particularly those who haven't watched Laura Poitras’ documentary Citizenfour about Snowden’s NSA leaks.
But even those who have seen Citizenfour should enjoy the background provided by Snowden and the personal dimension it provides, even as it breaks down what is wrong with what the spy agencies are doing, in ways that non-geeks can understand.
Towards the end of the film, news headlines are used to indicate the extent of legal reform triggered by Snowden's leak. It would be too much to ask the film to delve into how much these laws are window dressing for public consumption and whether they have resulted in any changes in mass surveillance in practice. And the film does not really go there.
But what is clear is that Snowden’s brave actions triggered a global discussion. A US federal appeals court finding that the surveillance program was illegal was also certainly vindication of his rationale for the leaks.
In an unusual twist, Snowden appears as himself at the end of the film, responding to questions in a forum connecting him by video-link to a live audience. It provides an extra dose of realism — emphasising how much of the film’s dramatic story is true. It draws out that the individual at the centre of the film, Snowden, still faces serious risks from the government he exposed.
The release of the film is well-timed for the campaign for Snowden’s pardon. Barack Obama came to power promising whistleblower protection, but instead has made history as the US president whose administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers than any other.
As the campaign gears up to call on Obama to use his last days in the presidency to pardon one of the best known modern whistleblowers, Snowden has potential to entertain, inform, and call to act. More information about that campaign can be found at www.pardonsnowden.org.