In Oliver Stone’s Snowden, the future NSA contractor/whistleblower/traitor/spy—select one, according to your politics—spends his first date with Lindsay Mills strolling past the White House. Tourists gawk at the imposing façade, parents chase children through the shade of flowering cherries, and petitioners collect signatures against the War in Iraq. Mills (Shailene Woodley), a liberal, adds her name to the rolls; Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a conservative, does not. He is, we learn, deferential to authority, wary of questioning the commander-in-chief: No surprise, perhaps, from a former Army reservist-in-training, discharged on account of injuries before joining the CIA. He nonetheless resists orthodoxies: In an interview with intelligence official Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), Snowden lists as influences Joseph Campbell, Henry David Thoreau, Ayn Rand, and Star Wars.
One can already see the outlines of what Stone is up to, but it’s the series of still images he sets against the couple’s conversation that establishes Snowden’s central thrust. With her camera, Mills captures intimate, black-and-white candids of the man we first met in a Hong Kong hotel room, strutting across the grass with a goofy grin, and from here the sequence bleeds into other photographs, of people holding placards scrawled with antiwar messages as the symbol of executive power looms behind them. In Stone’s work, of course, protest is the highest form of patriotism, and Snowden frames its subject as a dutiful defender of this principle. It is blunt (as ever), clumsy (in spots), and the director’s liveliest, most impassioned film in ages. Biopic/thriller/propaganda/myth—select one, according to your politics. But Snowden is a reclamation.
It’s worth noting, in light of the handwringing that’s accompanied the film’s release, that Stone embraces the polemical nature of his project, positioning it as a necessary corrective not simply to Snowden’s frequent tarring and feathering in the press, but also to the broader program of state surveillance that’s emerged since 9/11. (Even the wry “”Turn Off Your Phone PSA that accompanies theatrical screenings of Snowden features Stone warning the audience, “We are giving them access.”) When an NSA contact in Geneva explains the evolution of FISA courts, XKeyscore, and PRISM to Snowden, for instance, his point of reference for the breadth of information collected by American intelligence agencies is parable: “The whole kingdom, Snow White.” If the film’s aphoristic pronouncements are unsubtle—”Secrecy is security, and security is victory,” O’Brian growls—this is, perhaps, the consequence of the one-sided “debate” that descended from the PATRIOT Act, in which leaders from both major political parties hastily acquiesced to the ever-widening net without much concern for the long-term consequences. Snowden’s revelations and Snowden’s reflections thereon are, in this sense, perfect complements. To force the issue, both need a bullhorn.
Though not of the same caliber as Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, and Nixon, Stone’s latest thus returns to the terrain of his finest films, run through with the vigor of dissent. And his broadside is not without compelling evidence. Snowden is strewn with archival footage that illustrates the extent to which officials have stifled meaningful criticism of the national security apparatus: “Do not tell truth to power,” as whistleblower Thomas Drake glosses the government’s position in a clip from 60 Minutes. “We’ll hammer you.” (Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s head-scratching tell, as he testifies before Congress in 2013 on the contours of domestic surveillance, is so absurd, in retrospect, that it almost qualifies as low-hanging fruit.) One can parse the accuracy of Snowden’s account, or dispute the usefulness of “message movies,” but read on its own terms—as a political instrument, wielded with conviction—the film is a forceful attempt to resuscitate Snowden’s reputation, and, more importantly, to make the largely unchecked power of the NSA and the CIA the subject of an argument, rather than a fait accompli.
That Snowden is not preaching to the choir, but applying a modicum of muscle on its subject’s behalf, is clear enough from the recent spate of editorials and op-eds inveighing against him: See The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, CNN, and The Washington Post, which declares its own source deserving of prosecution. The film is only one part of the renewed interest in Snowden—though both the ACLU’s campaign to win him a pardon and the House Select Committee on Intelligence’s report discrediting him seem to have been timed to Snowden’s release—but the fact that he’s once again a topic of conversation speaks to its effectiveness as a pot-stirring missive, if not a nuanced portrait. If understanding Snowden as a hero in the tradition of Daniel Ellsberg requires turning him into the hero of a Hollywood narrative, the problem isn’t the film—it’s us.
As the film builds to its suspenseful crescendo, involving Snowden, an Internet outage in Syria, and a Rubik’s cube, Stone’s purpose is not simply to lionize his protagonist—though he does, perhaps too much for some tastes. It is, in equal measure, to suggest the sheer, metastasizing might of the institutions of national security, and to ask, as our representatives in government mostly have not, if this is an arrangement we’re comfortable with. The most striking moment in Snowden—the point at which our hero decides to act—finds Snowden in a quiet conference room, dwarfed by O’Brian’s face during a video chat. As it dawns on the bright, sober NSA contractor/whistleblower/spy that there are no lengths to which his leaders won’t go, the wall-sized image of Ifans’ snarl recalls the technological advances of another authoritarian dystopia, George Orwell’s Oceania. Stone, a skilled propagandist himself, understands 1984’s nightmarish universe, and Snowden expresses his belief that it’s not so different from our own. This might be a bit bluff, but as Orwell knew, politics often demands impolitic language. Otherwise, we’re liable “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable,” which sounds like a fair summary of the last 15 years to me.