Here’s the most telling part of the film Snowden. (Fair warning: it’s a spoiler, the first of many.) At the end of the movie, in the middle of a panning shot that passes the cover of an open laptop computer, Edward Snowden suddenly emerges playing himself, supplanting Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s heroic, lock-jawed impersonation of Snowden.
There’s the real Snowden, presumably in his apartment in Moscow with director Oliver Stone’s crew, carefully posed and lit in a golden haze, chin tilted up nobly, testifying to his self-sacrifice on America’s behalf, and essentially signing off on the film’s content by participating in it.
And the content of the film, I need hardly say given that it’s an Oliver Stone film, is bombastic melodrama centered on hero-worshipping one Edward Joseph Snowden. I was still picking my jaw up off the floor when the audience started applauding.
I mean, there’s no doubt that Snowden did a brave and principled thing back in 2013 when he blew the whistle on the terrifyingly invasive secret surveillance programs conducted by the National Security Agency of the US government. But doesn’t anyone find it odd that Snowden is such an eager participant in his own canonization? Or that he’s such a bad actor when playing himself?
Snowden’s own repeated insistence that “I’m not the story” gets more ludicrous every time he says it, generally in a film or an interview that is busy constituting him as the story. His “character” says it in this film, for God’s sake!
This film is a fawning biopic that adds a thousand details to a portrait of Snowden that are only relevant if your goal is becoming president of the Edward Snowden fan club. It baffles me. Who the hell cares?
How much does anyone want to know about Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills’ blandly liberal political views, her sex life with Snowden, and her temporary break-up with him when he got so weird and distant that time in Japan? Yet we get fifty-seven scenes of Snowden with Mills, played by a supremely uninteresting actor (Shailene Woodley) in a supremely uninteresting and conventional role, the female hanger-on in the leading man’s life who frets and nags because she just doesn’t understand his work. [Note: The real Lindsay Mills appears to be far more complex than the Oliver Stone version, which will be discussed in an upcoming story at Washington Babylon.]
In 138 minutes we are inundated with a ton of personal minutia that crusts over the vital issues at stake here. Snowden the Rubik’s Cube fondler! Snowden the epileptic! Snowden the young military recruit whose legs are so spindly and weakened by the rigors of basic training, he fractures both of them and washes out of the Special Forces!
(OK, I admit that last one is pretty interesting. Who knew your legs could shatter if you’re too skinny to run obstacle courses carrying a heavy pack?)
The Rubik’s Cube may have been the real-life Snowden’s favorite plaything, but it’s used in Stone’s “dramatization of actual events” in such an ostentatious Hollywood way it’s embarrassing. Planted early in the film so it can pay off at a climatic point, it’s weighted with significance as Snowden’s geek smarts made visible in the form of a familiar pop culture object.
It’s introduced in the first scene in close-up, carried in Edward Snowden’s hand as he walks toward Laura Poitras (played by Melissa Leo) and Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), who are waiting for their clandestine meeting with Snowden in a Hong Kong mall. Snowden manipulates the cube as he walks, in a way that implies he’s somehow solving the notoriously difficult puzzle with one hand while not even looking at.
The Rubik’s Cube pay-off that follows is one of the film’s numerous fictional fudgings. In the climactic scene, or one of them, anyway, Snowden is shown embedding the jump drive containing the classified NSA files under one of the colored tiles of the cube in order to smuggle it out of the heavily guarded building. Snowden tosses the cube to a guard, playfully offering him a chance to solve it, while walking through the security detector and then smoothly collects it on the other side.
Oliver Stone, in conversation with Edward Snowden at Comic-Con “via Google Hangout,” said that the smooth cube maneuver was Snowden’s own idea. The actual process by which Snowden smuggled the files out can’t be disclosed, it seems, and Stone wanted a nifty visual. Presumably Stone also wanted another way to show Snowden having astounding Jason Bourne-like aplomb in dangerous situations, and Snowden was only too happy to cooperate.
For those of you who can’t fathom what could possibly be wrong with making Snowden the focus of gushy-fan idolatry even if it involves borrowing from the conventions of slick Hollywood genre films to do it, I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it. It puts the focus exactly where it shouldn’t be—on the man, or at least an inanely mythologized version of him, and not on the systemic governmental abuse that he revealed, or what the American public should do about it.
This is a dangerous tendency we’ve seen often enough in American discourse. Just think about the ongoing misuse of Martin Luther King’s legacy, for example. Most Americans have learned that they’re supposed to revere MLK the man/myth (in public anyway) rather than understanding any accurate version of what he actually fought for or how he fought for it or why we should still be fighting today in the same cause. How many people in this country routinely deplore current political protests, including Black Lives Matter activism, on the specious grounds that MLK, that saintly peacemaker, would never have countenanced any such disruptions of pubic life?
Stone’s greatest sin in making Snowden is the final montage that seems to suggest Snowden’s heroics led directly to vast public protests and the solving of the systemic problems he revealed, indicated by newspaper headlines revealing the closure of spying programs. It’s pretty clear Oliver Stone got the idea for the ending from the glorious 1966 film Battle of Algiers, which has a broadly similar denouement, with the newly radicalized Algerian population hitting the streets in mass protests, and titles announcing the resulting overthrow of French colonial rule.
But the raw kinetic energy of the Battle of Algiers finale had the effect of inspiring a widespread desire to join the fight in increased political radicalism around the world. Stone’s tidy conclusion does the opposite, by suggesting that Snowden the hero essentially took care of the problem for us. Didn’t we just watch Snowden, not once but two or three times in the course of the film, walk triumphantly into radiant light as if he were being raptured up? For thoroughly sewn-up escapist movie closure, Snowden beats any corny old Western featuring the man on the white horse riding into the sunset after cleaning up Tombstone.
If the justification for this film is that it will educate a larger audience about the urgent perils of unconstitutional surveillance by the NSA, beyond the tiny demographic that is already highly aware of it, and spur them on to political action, this is exactly the wrong way to go about it. Hollywood films generally deal with narratives about systemic corruption by crafting them into stories of one man’s moral awakening, one man’s fight to a successful finish. Such stories function to soothe people’s anxieties about their society, not alert them to the immensity of the danger.
To give him credit, Snowden’s initial impulse was the right one: “I don’t want to be the story.” If one can believe anything in the rat’s nest of nonsense surrounding Snowden, that’s what he told to filmmaker Laura Poitras when he first contacted her. Of course, he told her that when paradoxically arranging to have her film him while in hiding at that drab hotel in Hong Kong, an interlude that’s already been the subject of intense scrutiny in the resulting documentary, Citizenfour.
We get a truncated version of that interlude in Snowden—I groaned aloud when I saw the hotel room, having felt lucky to escape with my sanity after the longueurs of Citizenfour. Snowden includes another version of the “focus on the story, I’m not the story” line which is becoming so much a part of the Snowden hagiography.
But it’s somewhere in those early interactions of Snowden with Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald when Snowden was presumably persuaded to jump into the spotlight and stay there. According to Poitras, she told him, “Like it or not, you’re going to be the story, so you might as well get your voice in.”
Apparently he liked it, although the whole thing seems to have worked out better for Greenwald and Poitras than it did for Snowden. Though apparently the film is being used as part of a campaign to grant him a pardon — which seems a little odd given its acknowledged fictionalizations — Snowden may well spend the remainder of his days in Moscow, presumably as a ward of the KGB. Meanwhile Greenwald and Poitras have grown ever richer and more famous as a result of Snowden’s actions. One hopes they’ll be visiting Moscow a lot in years to come, to cheer him up as he ages.
It’s worth watching Citizenfour in tandem with Snowden to see how dramatization infects the Poitras documentary as well. Its tendency toward Hollywood thriller flourishes includes evocative film noirish urban night shots and slick, suspenseful editing by Mathilde Bonnefoy, who also cut Tom Tykwer’s 2009 paranoid conspiracy thriller, The International.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, certain major players at the online publication The Intercept have been centrally involved in films that dramatize documentary material in similar ways. Besides Poitras and Greenwald in Snowden and Citizenfour, there’s also Jeremy Scahill in Dirty Wars, playing himself in apparently staged scenes illustrating how the investigation of the most appalling aspects of the US so-called war on terror “gutted” him personally. That documentary was also streamlined in the script development process in order to align it with the conventions of paranoid conspiracy thrillers, complete with heroically suffering protagonist.
Given that tendency, it seems logical that Glenn Greenwald’s book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State was announced in 2014 as an upcoming SONY film “set to be produced by the same team behind the James Bond franchise.” If the so-so box-office returns of Snowden don’t kill the project, I wonder who will play our heroes in this dramatization?
Perhaps they’ll all get steadily better-looking and more glamorous to go along with their Justice League exploits, through the magic of casting and makeup. For example, Glenn Greenwald’s pendulous nose, baggy eyes, and general appearance of hangdog resentment have been suggested in Snowden by giving Zachary Quinto darker eyebrows, and having him frown.
But I think if they’re going to go down this hero-worshipping road, they might as well go younger and bolder and Hollywoodier. Let’s say Shia LeBeouf as the temperamental rebel journalist Glenn Greenwald! And how about Chris Hemsworth as Edward Snowden? Wire-rim glasses will convey his computer genius, and Hemsworth proved he looked great in fake glasses in Ghostbusters. Add Amy Adams tossing her long curls as Laura Poitras, and you’ve got yourself a blockbuster that’ll make everyone forget that bad thing the government was doing before Edward Snowden rode into town.