Near the end of Oliver Stone’s latest au courant period piece Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing the titular role, tells the three journalists assembled in his Hong Kong hotel room and tasked with disseminating evidence of government malfeasance to “Keep the focus on the story, that’s all that matters.” The line, knowingly ironic for such a hagiographic biopic, is delivered like a wink from the director.
Keep the focus on the story? But the movie itself is called Snowden, not Your Government Is Spying on You or They’ve Been Lying From the Start. The film follows Edward Snowden from his time enlisting in the Army after 9/11 to his dramatic 2013 flight into exile as a disillusioned intelligence analyst determined to expose illegal government surveillance. It paints an intimate portrait of Snowden’s foibles, domestic complications, hopes, fears, and ultimate disillusionment.
The point that Stone seems to be making with the sly line is that in order to deliver possibly the largest government corruption scandal in the last century to a willing audience, the dry facts of cybersurveillance need to be entwined, helix-like, with the narrative of Edward Snowden’s heroism. In order to connect with audiences, the film has to be propaganda. Sophisticated propaganda, to be sure, but propaganda nonetheless.
I’m using “propaganda” here more in the Chinese sense of the word than the English. In English, “propaganda” implies a sort of sophisticated way of lying. The truth doesn’t need rhetorical bells and whistles hung on it. But the Chinese word—宣传 (“Xuānchuán”)—suggests simply “persuasion” or “dissemination.” Almost a marketing campaign on behalf of an idea. And this is exactly what Oliver Stone is engaged in with Snowden.
All evidence indicates that the movie accurately conveys the facts relevant to the story. It draws its plot from The Snowden Files by Luke Harding and Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena. Veteran intelligence reporter Jeff Stein writes that “Stone hews far closer to the facts in Snowden than in any of his other films.” But honesty isn’t the same as objectivity, and this movie is obviously meant to persuade. The release of the film coincides with a campaign by the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International to publicly pressure Obama to grant Snowden, still exiled in Moscow, a pardon so that he can return home without facing trial under the Espionage Act. Wired writes that the release of Stone’s film “might just boost their chances of success.”
I saw an early screening of the film as part of an ACLU-sponsored event in Portland, Maine. The crowd, which appeared to be composed mostly of members of the ACLU of Maine, was older than the average movie audience. I’m in my early 30s and was one of the youngest people in the theater. That being the case, I was a bit skeptical that Oliver Stone could pull it off. “Sure, maybe these people know about the abuse of the Espionage Act because of Daniel Ellsberg,” I thought, “but can Stone really explain the dry, complicated, computer jargon-heavy tale of NSA FISA malfeasance to this audience?”
He did. But he also did more than that. He didn’t just give one of the most important public events of the past 20 years a human face; he made it seem as if we’re seeing that face in a mirror. I could feel the audience identifying with Ed, laughing at little moments from his domestic life that they recognized from their own. Leaning forward with concern when health issues arose. Sitting in stunned silence when work squabbles ballooned out of proportion. The sense of recognition in the audience was almost palpable. Stone wasn’t just telling Snowden’s story. He was telling our story through Snowden. The movie might as well have been called How the Government Ruined Our Lives.
How Stone does this is pretty simple. He tells Snowden’s story through his adult work history while showing how those experiences intertwined inexorably with his personal life. While convalescing in a military hospital after breaking both of his legs during basic training, Snowden meets his future long-term girlfriend Lindsay Mills through an online dating forum. The event combines three major themes of the film: his relationship with Mills, his thwarted ambitions to serve his country, and how intimately we’re all connected by computer networks.
The film flips between the tense 2013 transfer of Snowden’s evidence and flashbacks of his life that move chronologically from basic training through his final disillusionment at a secret NSA base in Hawaii. When we’re not getting the 2013 Snowden pensively looking out of windows, we see the story of his young life in all of its granular detail. A first date. Head-butting with bosses. The struggle of a successful person to achieve some kind of viable work/life balance. Other than the extraordinary work he does, Snowden’s life isn’t too terribly different from that of any young, ambitious professional.
The movie is full of characters. People flit in and out of scenes in a way that might feel ad hoc but is pretty true to life. Some recur, some occupy only a few individual scenes. Nicholas Cage plays a sympathetic instructor at the CIA academy. Timothy Olyphant is a nihilistic agency careerist who gives Snowden his first indications that the job might not be everything it’s cracked up to be. Keith Stanfield plays a sympathetic coworker at the NSA facility in Hawaii. The film is almost symphonic in the number of characters that weave in and out of Snowden’s story. It’s engaging, of course, but it also seems like a sleight-of-hand trick to distract from the the complicated legal and technological considerations that give the film its purpose.
Snowden is also cheesy. Very cheesy. But there’s also a sophistication to the corniness. Clichés abound, forming a path to help the audience navigate through the rough underbrush of laws and data-collection jargon. Near the end of the film, when Snowden has made his revelations public, Nicholas Cage’s character makes an awkward and unexpected appearance smoking in a recliner and muttering something like “way to go, kid.”
But these spoonfuls of sugar that Oliver Stone gives the audience make sense. There are other ways to learn about what Snowden helped publicize. There are news articles, books, and even documentaries. But none of these will reach as wide an audience as this movie. And Oliver Stone wants his medicine to go down.
Take a look at the movie poster for Snowden. It could almost be for a Bourne film, the style it’s rendered in. And it’s true that there are montage scenes with lines of light representing online connections shooting across a cybernetic globe while electronic music thumps in the background. But unlike the Bourne movies, the Mission: Impossible series, or the newest 007’s, Snowden doesn’t suggest a high-tech cybernetic world of hacking to veil a banal action plot. It does almost the opposite, using a veneer of, if not banality, then approachability to humanize an otherwise dry story about the complexities of the actual world.
Stone is a director just as interested in changing the world as in describing it. He believes that, by showing everyday Americans that their government spied on them and also repeatedly lied about these breaches of trust, some sort of democratic oversight will be restored to an out-of-control intelligence-gathering process. Applying public pressure to the White House might also help Snowden avoid standing trial under the Espionage Act, which has in the past been used as a blunt tool to silence whistleblowers regardless of intent or context.
This movie is supposed to do all of these things: tell Snowden’s story, explain post-9/11 government overreach in data gathering, critique the overuse of the Espionage Act, and in the meanwhile make a general audience laugh, cry, and cringe. It’s very ambitious propaganda indeed. Only time will tell if it’s actually successful.
Scott Beauchamp is a veteran and writer based in Portland, Maine.