The Value of Oliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’

Exclusive: Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” takes you inside the vast electronic expanse of U.S. intelligence gathering via the personal story of Edward Snowden’s decision to expose these secrets to the world, writes Lisa Pease.

By Lisa Pease

If you think you already know the story of Edward Joseph Snowden, the man who leaked evidence of the global mass surveillance programs that the U.S. and U.K. governments have been conducting not just on enemies abroad but on their citizens at home, think again. Very few people know the complexities of the man and his backstory.

Even if you saw “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning documentary about Snowden’s historic act, Oliver Stone’s movie, “Snowden,” tells a significantly different story, using dramatic license to take you on an emotional journey into Snowden’s experiences and motivations.primary_snowden-600x315

As Stone emphasized in person at a screening that I attended, the film is not a documentary and was decidedly fictionalized for dramatic effect. That said, many specifics and incidents are true — and Stone remained true to Snowden in terms of his intelligence, temperament and reasoning that helped shape the actions he took.

This riveting film — Stone’s latest foray into the dangers and excesses of the National Security State — has all the ingredients that we’ve come to expect from the frequent Academy Award winner and nominee. Stone’s touch is everywhere evident in the film.

The story that Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald weaves is compelling. The characters grow and evolve over the course of the film. The score is evocative. Shots are artfully crafted to make a rich movie-going experience. The visuals — and in one particular sequence, visualizations — are stunning.

Stone takes us along on Snowden’s personal journey of discovery in a film that is anchored by the love story between initially political opposites who grow, change and learn to make sacrifices to protect each other.

The film opens near the end of his story, with Snowden holed up in the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, awaiting his first rendezvous with activist Laura Poitras and the lawyer-turned-journalist Glenn Greenwald. The film jumps back and forth in time from that “present” to Snowden’s past, which proceed in parallel throughout the film.

Snowden had originally tried to join the Special Forces, having been upset by the 9/11 tragedy that befell New York City and by proxy the rest of America. Due to an injury, Snowden turns to his interest in computers, and his technical prowess helps him rise quickly through the ranks of the CIA and brings him to the attention of the National Security Agency at the highest levels.

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. (Photo credit: The Guardian)

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. (Photo credit: The Guardian)

Like so many Americans, Snowden believed that what the secret elements of our government were doing were benign and necessary, due to the rise of terrorism. Snowden wanted to participate in covert operations and was given the opportunity. But when he realized that covert operations involved compromising people who had committed no crimes just so they could be forced to help the CIA, he had a change of heart and for a time left the agency.

And, the more Snowden learned from his work in America’s intelligence services, including the communications-spying NSA, the more he understood that with great power comes a great temptation to use it for evil as well as for good. Eventually, the weight of bearing the secrets he carried caused him to break some oaths in order to honor the higher calling of protecting the American people from unwarranted and unjustifiable surveillance.

The Human Value of Privacy

In the film, at one point, Snowden gets upset when his girlfriend says so what if the government listens in — she had nothing to hide. But everyone has something to hide. That’s why you have a password on your computer, why your medical records aren’t made public, why your taxes stay between you and the IRS (unless, of course, you are running for president, in which case there is an expectation of greater transparency).

Writer-director Oliver Stone.

Writer-director Oliver Stone.

The film showed the toll that bearing difficult secrets took not only on Snowden’s life but on the lives of his friends. Snowden’s girlfriend at one point complained that he hadn’t touched her in months, a result of Snowden’s acute awareness of how every breath could be heard, every action seen or recorded unless extraordinary precautions were taken.

The real Edward Snowden, after noting how hard it was to watch himself portrayed in this scene to the world as the “worst boyfriend ever,” waxed eloquent on that subject during a live Q&A following a special screening of the film:

”Privacy isn’t about something to hide. Privacy is about something to protect. That’s who you are. That’s what you believe in, that’s who you want to become. Privacy is the right to the self. Privacy is what gives you the ability to share with the world who you are, on your own terms, for them to understand what you’re trying to be. And to protect for yourself the parts of you that you’re not sure about, that you’re still experimenting with.

“If we don’t have privacy, what we’re losing is the ability to make mistakes. We’re losing the ability to be ourselves. [Saying that you don’t care about privacy] because you have nothing to hide is like arguing that you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”

Stone’s film artfully weaves in a number of real-world examples of things people might wish to hide. No one will go to bed after viewing this without putting a piece of tape over their laptop camera, for instance, and I expect a surge in microwave sales among security professionals.

The actors do excellent jobs portraying the real-life characters we have come to know through news broadcasts and documentaries. Edward Snowden is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt so well that at a screening in New York, the real Edward Snowden’s parents came up and thanked him for giving them the “essence” of their son.

I don’t know if actress Shailene Woodley did an accurate portrayal of Lindsay Mills, but the Bernie Sanders surrogate and anti-Dakota Access Pipeline activist was charming, smart, vulnerable and the perfect complement to the more serious, introverted Snowden, as played by Gordon-Levitt.

One of the things I hadn’t learned from the initial coverage of the real-life Snowden in the early media stories was how genius-level bright he is. That point is well made in the film and was equally evident in his articulate responses to the questions posed in the live Q&A session after the screening. The real Snowden made a powerful statement about privacy in his attempt to illuminate the crux of the issue with government spying:

I only wish Snowden had pointed out that one of the most terrible parts of government spying is how it provides blackmail material on those who would attempt to rein in the excesses of the National Security State. How can elected officials ever get the CIA or NSA to stop doing illegal things when the agencies hold all the darkest secrets of those same officials?

Longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover rose to power in the previous century largely because he either knew or pretended to know the dirt on many politicians. Now, there is the prospect of U.S. intelligence insiders possessing extensive records of everyone’s electronic conversations and photographs, meaning that any misstep or personal foible becomes part of each person’s permanent record, available to an intelligence agency wanting to misuse it.

The implications of that troubling reality is one reason why this special film will stay with you, haunting you with its implications, long after you’ve left the darkness of the theater and returned to the privacy — or not — of your home. And if you want to know who the CIA’s assets are in the media, just pay attention to who gives this film a bad review. The CIA and NSA really do not want you to see it.

But let me give you one last reason to see “Snowden.” It belongs to an increasingly rare genre, a well-made film about a topic that matters. Over the years and decades, Hollywood has turned more and more to escapist movies with minimal attention to the great issues of the day. If we want to see more movies that are intelligent and relevant, we need to support films like this one.

Lisa Pease is a writer who has examined issues ranging from the Kennedy assassination to voting irregularities in recent U.S. elections.

22 comments for “The Value of Oliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’

  1. Christopher PIke
    September 24, 2016 at 01:08

    Lisa Pease’s review underscores the vital importance of this film at a time when the NATIONAL SECURITY STATE covertly reigns supreme, except for that big bump in the road created by two brave patriots – Ed Snowden and Oliver Stone. Essential viewing!

  2. Ron Canuck
    September 23, 2016 at 01:21

    It would have been worth mentioning in this excellent review that all Hollywood studios turned Stone down and this film was made in Munich instead.

  3. oldfolk
    September 18, 2016 at 11:15

    I am no film or mediaphile. I don’t go to movie theaters as a general rule. Popular culture doesn’t ring my bell. I haven’t been in a movie theater since i opted to see Moore’s ferheinheight 911. I made an exception for this offering. The choice was more about showing support than it was an interest in seeing a movie after a long hiatus. The experience was more than worth it! Ms Pease’s review is on the money.

  4. Andreas Wirsén
    September 18, 2016 at 04:53

    I haven’t taped over my laptop camera, which means the NSA – if they could spare the disk space – might have a long series of my orgasms on tape. Pause for thought. (And my excuses to my readers for any unpleasant mental images those words might have set off. Unfortunately, no one has yet invented a special kind of bleach, to pour over the Mind’s Eye).

  5. Zachary Smith
    September 17, 2016 at 23:35

    Headline at the emptywheel site: “HPSCI: We Must Spy Like Snowden To Prevent Another Snowden”

    Yes, Americans must be spied on and privacy thrown to the winds to keep our secrets safe from another evil Snowden. Never mind that if Snowden had access to the secrets, all our potential and real enemies darned well could too.

    https://www.emptywheel.net/2016/09/16/hpsci-we-must-spy-like-snowden-to-prevent-another-snowden/

  6. Annie
    September 17, 2016 at 21:24

    I loved the movie!

  7. Lawrence Hubert
    September 17, 2016 at 19:27

    I just came back from the film. While I prefer “Citizen four”, this one was very good and troubling even though it’s harder to separate the fiction part from the reality. The actors all did a terrific job. After watching the film, it make clear that the government is now the enemy of the people. It’s has rogue institutions out of control from anyone including the politicians who are just “passing”. It has their entire life on files anyway. The United States use to be a admired nation but now is despise by a vast majority of people around the world. Everyone can see what they are doing in Ukraine, Syria and the barely covert war against Russia. The public is so dumb down by the medias that they have no clue what their government is up to.

    Speaking of Ukraine, Stone completed a movie earlier this year about the US coup in that country, “Ukraine on Fire”. It was shown in Italy but as since disappeared from everywhere. The documentary was way too incriminating to be shown in the US. I hope it get leaks somewhere.

    • Bill Bodden
      September 17, 2016 at 19:46

      After watching the film, it make clear that the government is now the enemy of the people.

      Make that “the government is still the enemy off the people”. Witness how the first edition of the US Constitution was rigged in favor of the landed property owners and was followed by protests from the people that led to the first ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights. I’m rereading my copy of Walter Karp’s The Politics of War in which President McKinley and his accomplices in the senate are shown as manipulating the people into accepting America’s new role of a colonial power and strengthening the power of the Republican and Democratic party oligarchs. McKinley gets a lot of credit for the demise of republicanism – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Republicanism – in the US – not to be confused with the Republican Party.

    • Bart Gruzalski
      September 18, 2016 at 14:53

      Bill, excellent comment. You are right that the constitution was biased toward landed gentry and those with property, INCLUDING slaves. But the states weren’t going to pass the constitution unless this was one of the Bill of Rights:

      The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides, “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly …

      FOURTH AMENDMENT | Wex Legal Dictionary / Encyclopedia | LII / Legal …
      https://www.law.cornell.edu/…/fourth_amendme…Legal Information Institute:
      Legal Information Institute—
      The Legal Information Institute is a non-profit, public service of Cornell Law School that provides no-cost access to current American and international legal research sources online at law.cornell.edu. Wikipedia

    • Bart Gruzalski
      September 18, 2016 at 15:07

      P.S. I don’t think ALL forms of government or presidential candidates are enemies of the people. I believe that the common people “hear” in Trump a different drummer, the hoped for revolution for the people so that we will all be able to have a decent job. That’s why I always find it so funny when the media tell us that both candidates are among the worst hated one in the world. Trump is the voice of those who’ve had no voice and the “powers that be” better not screw around with this election like they did with the first Bush Jr. election in Florida.

      It’s amazing that Trump does raise hopes given that the President of Hope, Obama, was a total failure and a deadening disappointment.

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 17, 2016 at 22:16

      Lawrence, boy I’m so glad to read your comment about the Stone movie ‘Ukraine on Fire’. I’ve been going nuts trying to see it. Somewhere on the web I saw a trailer for it, and the trailer had footage of Oliver Stone talking to Robert Parry. This of course peaked my interest, but that’s where the problem came to be, I can’t find the movie anywhere. I guess I should go to Italy or something, yeah freedom of speech…ha.

      Robert Parry should use this movie ‘Ukraine on Fire’ as a donation gift.

    • Lawrence Hubert
      September 18, 2016 at 08:22

      After those films, I am amazed that Stone is still free and … alive. I’ll bet soon he will have to move to Russia too.

  8. jack epikoureios
    September 17, 2016 at 18:37

    “In the film, at one point, Snowden gets upset when his girlfriend says so what if the government listens in — she had nothing to hide. But everyone has something to hide. That’s why you have a password on your computer, why your medical records aren’t made public, why your taxes stay between you and the IRS (unless, of course, you are running for president, in which case there is an expectation of greater transparency).”

    Unless I missed it, Ms. Pease, forgot to add that that’s why we have the 4th amendment! Glen Grenwald and others have given tons of additional obvious reasons for privacy. Think of privacy as a “lubricant” that allows the various parts of society, i.e. people, to move with less friction / smoothly, like motor oil in an engine … Without privacy everything move is more difficult, i.e. less experimentation, more conformism, less creativity, less independence, more statics, less dynamics.
    [Add political correctness to the absence of privacy and you get a nightmarish society, the kind Orwell et al warned us about.]
    Why do most people presume that privacy is about hiding illegal, bad, activities ???!!! Also, let’s not forget who decides what is legal and illegal … Why don’t we apply this “nothing to hide” argument to governments ? Why are governments hiding sooooo … many things, why are they cracking down on the snowdens ???
    Last, this (a) “if you’ve got nothing to hide”, and (b) dismissing / trashing something by simply throwing around the phrase “it’s a conspiracy theory”, are two of the most toxic (and effective) pillars of unfreedom … why do so many people parrot uncritically those two cancers of our public discourse?
    PS: 1. I hope the Consortium News crowd will agree that both PRIVACY and CASH are good things, both pro-freedom … that’s why they are systematically attacked these days …
    2. What do people know about this:
    http://www.activistpost.com/2016/09/forget-stop-frisk-cops-across-us-collecting-dna-innocent-people-stop-swabs.html

  9. Joe Tedesky
    September 17, 2016 at 17:47

    This article mentions one of the biggest problems I have with our country’s snooping into it’s citizens lives, and that is who maybe blackmailed into doing something against their own interest. Many times over these last fifteen years when listening to various congress people, or others of that status, I have often wondered to if their support was of their own mine, or were they sqeezed into submission. You must admit having inside knowledge, especially private sensitive knowledge of an important individual life could produce some pretty interesting results. I don’t want an American global empire, I want an America which one could feel safe to live in. Great article Lisa Pease, and let’s all thank Edward Snowden, and all of America’s whistleblowers who strive to make America that safe place to live that I spoke about.

    • Bill Bodden
      September 17, 2016 at 19:30

      The Israel Lobby is probably the biggest blackmailer we have in the US and Europe exposing how many politicians are willing to sell their souls to occupy an office shrouded in shame.

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 17, 2016 at 22:05

      Bill, I wrote a comment the other day where I brought up this very thing. I had said, how Israel may have had the knowledge about the JFK assassination. Someone like Myer Lansky, or Mossad, may have had inside information to who was really behind JFK’s murder. I stated, how being an observer would possibly have been a better position to be in, rather than being the actual originator of such a criminal plot. The trick of course would have been to stay a live. I would think that an entity such as Israel would be very well suited to obtain this knowledge, while having the upmost ability to stay safe. I don’t believe Israel was involved in the scheme to kill an American president, but I do believe that Israel’s intelligence of it may have been most prominent.

    • Bart Gruzalski
      September 18, 2016 at 14:44

      While I agree that the AIPAC is a big blackmailer, they are much more dangerous are sponsors of war, and that just involves telling an East Coast politician that they will be out of office after the next election. Although that power is only viable on the East coast–it won’t work anymore in huge swaths of the Midwest and probably will only work in specific precincts on the West coast….. the BIGGEST BLACKMAILER IS THE CLINTON FOUNDATION. Here’s the recent headline along with a video from the Haitian leader who is telling us that Hillary tried to bribe him and that the Clinton Foundation stole billions from the many billions raised around the world to help Haiti after its devastating earthquake (only two percent went to Haiti, the rest was one overhead which is often big but this is the first time I’ve heard of 98%). Anyone hear of any other foundation charging over 80% for overhead?

      You may think this is not blackmail, but with the power of the Clinton presidency (which took away the man’s passport), it is blackmail: you do what I want or I make you worse off.

      It’s also spending 98% of the many billions contributed to the Clinton foundation for the earthquake on “the family”: daughter (I’ve heard a 900K salary) plus Bill and Hillary. This isn’t just a USA scandal, this is a worldwide scandal!

      The article’s Title: “Haitian President Exposes Clinton Foundation: “Hillary Clinton Tried To Bribe Me!””

      Where to find it:
      http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2016-09-17/haitian-president-exposes-clinton-foundation-hillary-clinton-tried-bribe-me

      Hope this comment isn’t deleted! Good being involved again.

  10. Bob Van Noy
    September 17, 2016 at 12:00

    Lisa, thank you for this review and thanks too for all that you do and write about to further justice in Our Country. I saw the movie last night and came away encouraged by people like Edward Snowden, Oliver Stone, and now you for speaking truth to power. Of course there is Consortiumnews as well. What would we do without all you?

    • Bill Bodden
      September 17, 2016 at 13:09

      Add Daniel Jones who led on the Senate intelligence committee’s report on CIA torture, his colleagues, https://consortiumnews.com/2016/09/16/us-media-ignores-cia-cover-up-on-torture/ – whistleblowers and others of their persuasion and we have superb reasons for fighting the good fight. We may not win, but we might keep the candle of hope lit for some other generation to make this a more enlightened and civilized world.

    • Lisa Pease
      September 17, 2016 at 14:02

      Human rights progress always takes multiple generations. I should have mentioned that Snowden specifically called out his predecessors, such as Bill Binney and Thomas Drake, who tried to escalate their concerns about the NSA spying by working the system from within. Without them, the real Snowden said, his actions would not have been possible.

      Thanks for your comment re that, Bill Bodden, and thanks for your kind words, Bob Van Noy.

    • Bart Gruzalski
      September 18, 2016 at 11:35

      Lisa, thank you for doing what I’ve always wanted writer to do–to get involved in the discussion. I haven’t seen the movie but I’m a wanting to.

      Thanks too for mentioning what happened with the real life Snowden was there. Keep up the good work.

    • September 20, 2016 at 18:16

      Thanks, Bart! Yeah, isn’t that the purpose of the Internet – actual dialog with people, not just monologues? :-)

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