Edward Snowden Really Needs Oliver Stone’s Hero Movie Right Now
Warning: This story contains spoilers regarding plot points and details of the film Snowden. (But you probably already know how it ends.)
Director Oliver Stone’s Snowden takes about 90 minutes to bleach out the last shades of grey in its black-and-white biopic of the NSA’s most well-known whistleblower. In a scene shortly before Edward Snowden’s decision to fly to Hong Kong and leak the NSA’s secrets to journalists, the 29-year-old contractor and his National Security Agency coworkers are drinking beers at a Hawaiian luau when one of them describes the experience of monitoring NSA-enabled drone strikes via live videostream: How he watched a child die in one drone strike and then saw the kid’s entire family get blown to dust in another attack on the day of his funeral.
The coworker asks whether their actions might be criminal. His boss chimes in with the world’s worst straw man argument, claiming that they can’t be criminals “if they’re working for the government.”
Snowden, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, responds: “Ever heard of the Nuremberg trials?”
The scene crystallizes the film’s Godwin’s-Law point of view in a debate that has polarized the security community for more than three years: Snowden is a hero, speaking truth to power. The NSA is indefensibly corrupt, authoritarian, and complicit in the murder of innocents. At another time in history, that take might have been just another reductive Hollywood fable. Right now, it may be something more: A simplistic story that alters the public’s perception of Snowden at a key moment in his exile in Russia.
Today the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International launched a campaign to pressure the Obama administration to pardon Snowden, a last-ditch effort to allow the whistleblower to return to the United States without facing criminal charges under the Espionage Act. The organizers of the campaign make no secret of their hope that Snowden, which premieres Friday, will be the most mainstream, comprehensive telling of the Snowden saga yet and might just boost their chances of success.
“We’re aware that this is the way a lot of people are going to find out about the human element of the story,” says Parker Higgins, a former activist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation who left the organization to lead the pardon campaign. “We’re hoping to ride that promotional wave….We think when people are exposed to that story, they’ll understand why we’re pushing for a pardon.”
The prospect of a pardon is likely to dwindle from highly unlikely to virtually impossible when Obama leaves office in January. Hillary Clinton has disputed the notion that Snowden was a whistleblower and criticized him for failing to sufficiently voice his concerns about the NSA’s surveillance over official channels. Trump suggested that he should be executed for treason. Meanwhile, Snowden’s criticisms of the Russian government for domestic surveillance may be straining his relationship with the government that’s granted him temporary shelter.
As Snowden seeks a return to the US or even asylum in a western European country, he couldn’t ask for a more supportive mainstream portrayal. Many of the NSA crimes that Stone depicts in the film aren’t documented in the very real privacy violations Snowden’s leaks revealed—amounting to blunt political fiction that’s surprising even for Stone, a career-long critic of the federal government. At one point, an NSA employee casually watches an unwitting Muslim woman in real-time through her laptop’s camera as she removes her niqab and shirt. Later, Snowden narrates how the agency worked to plant malware in power plants, dams, and hospitals in Japan, Mexico, Germany, Brazil, and Austria, the better to shut down those countries’ infrastructure if they become enemies. The final element in Snowden’s decision to blow the whistle comes when he learns that a senior CIA official is reading the email of his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills.
“This is a work of fiction, and it doesn’t reflect any reality I’m aware of,” says Susan Hennessey, a former NSA attorney and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “People go into the movie and aren’t sure what’s real and not real, and they assume some things are fact, and that’s really problematic.”
Despite Pulitzer-Prize-winning news coverage and an Oscar-winning documentary film, many people viewing Snowden might be discovering his full story for the first time. In a segment on John Oliver’s show last year, average people interviewed in Times Square didn’t know who Snowden was, confused his revelations with those of WikiLeaks, or simply remembered that he’d released secrets that harmed national security. A Hollywood film could capture the public’s imagination, Snowden pardon campaign organizer Higgins hopes. “You have a lot of examples of film portrayals of people superseding the original,” he says. “I absolutely think this can influence people’s opinion.”
And will that influence be based in the facts of Snowden’s story and the NSA’s record, or in Oliver Stone’s oversimplified narrative? In a Q&A following a press screening at the Brooklyn Public Library Sunday, Stone seemed to concede that he’d fudged the details. “It’s a drama,” Stone replied when asked by Snowden’s ACLU attorney, Ben Wizner, if his story was true. “I had to make all this material work in a two-hour timeframe and not bore people.”
But Wizner went on to offer his own answer, pointing to two “deep truths” that underlie any of the fictionalized details of Stone’s story. “The United States developed and deployed a system of mass surveillance without democratic consent,” Wizner said. “That’s accurately portrayed. And the person who stepped forward to reveal that did so with sincerity, courage, conviction, and patriotism. And I think that’s also accurately depicted.”
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