I never saw Citizenfour, the documentary Laura Poitras made about Edward Snowden. I thought about it a lot and certainly meant to, but it was never really a priority for me. This was, in large part, because I followed along with the Snowden story back in 2013. I read Glenn Greenwald’s columns long before The Intercept and I followed him there once he broke off on his own. (I also followed the story of The Racket, First Look Media’s failed attempt to branch out under the leadership of Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi, which is unrelated but also kinda fascinating.)
So I felt like I had seen enough and read enough when Citizenfour came around. We’re now almost two years out from that and three years from the Snoweden leaks themselves, and though Snowden is still in the news on a fairly regular basis, I don’t feel as inundated with his existence as I once did. And so when I saw the trailer for Oliver Stone’s biopic and I heard Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s spectacular Snowden voice, I was interested. It’s an important story, and the ramifications of it are ones we’re still dealing with and need our leaders to deal with.
And that leads to an interesting question: Were Snowden to crush at this weekend’s box office, could it bring this issue back to the forefront? And, well, should it?
Director: Oliver Stone
Release Date: September 16, 2016
Snowden is a film steeped in dramatic irony. It opens with the first meeting of Snowden, Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), and Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto). We don’t see (then or ever) how he got in touch with them or how he convinced them to go to Hong Kong to meet him. But we know why he’s there and why they’re there. Everyone knows his name, and I imagine the people who have forgotten what he did will remember pretty quickly once it’s all underway. Much of the film takes place in the past, as we watch Snowden go from a young man kicked out of the army after he’s injured during boot camp to a CIA employee to a CIA contractor to an NSA contractor to the most famous whistleblower of the modern era. But at each step, we know who and what he will become, and that colors each and every interaction.
I imagine it must have been agonizing, during the scripting process, to not get too hammy. The lines exist here and there — perhaps most blatantly: “You won’t regret this” after being hired by the CIA — but I imagine that some of those lines were actually said at the time. I would entirely believe that a man would tell his new boss that they wouldn’t regret hiring him, for example. Sometime people say things like that. It’s only because we know what ultimately happens that that line is seen as anything other than genuine gratitude. To the audience, it’s a joke, though no one actually laughed.
I don’t know how much of Snowden is true and how much is dramatized. I know for a fact that certain things didn’t go down the way they were depicted because I remember reading news reports that explained the actual (far less sexy) events three years ago, but those wouldn’t have made for compelling drama. Like Snowden, you know something is going to happen, and it’s probably bad. He knows it, because he knows what the people he’s up against are capable of; you know it, because this isn’t the first time you’ve seen a movie. Movies are all about information. This movie in particular is about information, but I mean in the broader sense of the word, because drama is about the conveying of information. When, where, and how information is presented to the audience can radically change their perception of, well, everything. Information is the most crucial thing in storytelling, and sometimes that information is simple and something it isn’t.
What makes Snowden’s story so complicated is that the programs he revealed to the world are so complicated. It’s hard enough to condense Xkeyscore and Prism and everything else into an easy-to-understand package without needing to also tell a human story about the guy who unveiled it all. Sure, the movie could just not try, but as much as this is Snowden’s story, it also is one that tries to explain Why This Matters. Just presenting Snowden is all well and good, but it’s crucial that we understand the gravity of the things that Snowden revealed. We need to know why he would throw away his objectively-pretty-good life because something was gnawing at him and he couldn’t get away from it. And I think that the film does a decent job of explaining how it all works. Is it oversimplified? Of course… but it’s also basically accurate, and that’s what matters. People who didn’t really pay attention in 2013 or didn’t understand what they were being told can learn at least a little bit about what Snowden leaked. That’s a big deal.
Because information is also power. It’s power in the film, but it’s also power beyond. In a Q&A session after the film, Oliver Stone was asked what the message of the film was. He rejected the question out of hand and let the others answer it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt said that he thought The Point was to rekindle the conversation, an interest in the things that are talked about. To get people to dig deeper and draw their own conclusions. (The Edward Snowden depicted in the film says something like that, and the real Edward Snowden, beamed in from Moscow during the Q&A, did as well.) They all understand the importance of information. And I think that anyone who sees Snowden will feel it as well.
It’s an undeniably political film, and Snowden’s shift away from hyper-patriotic, semi-authoritarian conservatism is kind of interesting to watch in the context of our current climate. Having seen the general even-handedness of W., I know that Stone isn’t out to just make conversatives look bad, but that doesn’t mean the reaction to this film won’t fall down party lines. Let’s be clear: Oliver Stone thinks that what Snowden did is a very important thing, and he stands firmly on his side (though not in all matters, necessarily). As a result of that, I think reactions to it will be heavily partisan. And if not, then what lines does it fall down? Some people will just think it’s a bad movie (it’s not) because they don’t like it. That’s fair enough. But others will have a visceral reaction and reject it out of hand. And I want to know why those people do, because I think it matters.
To answer the question I posed at the beginning, yes: I think it should start that conversation and bring the issue back to the forefront. But it’s important that we start that conversation based on information rather than opinion. It doesn’t matter what you think of what Edward Snowden did, whether you think he deserves to spend the rest of his life in jail or as a free man. What matters is that the conversation about privacy, about security, about all these extremely important topics can happen now in a way that they couldn’t before. Snowden can be a jumping-off point.
As the Q&A was getting set up, an older woman a few seats from me stood up. “You’re a hero, Mr. Stone,” she shouted. People clapped, but it was honestly a little awkward. I wondered how many people in the theater agreed with her. I don’t, not really. I don’t think that Snowden is a heroic film made by a heroic man. But it doesn’t have to be. It just has to be good. To start that conversation, it needs to function as a cohesive narrative, tell a story that is compelling and do so in a compelling way. Snowden does all that. It does more than that. It makes you think. It makes you want to talk. It’ll likely make you question your own beliefs about the power that a government should have, regardless of how you feel about it going in. Or maybe it won’t, and that’s interesting too. The point is that there’s something to say, something substantive to discuss.
And who know, maybe it can make a difference. How cool would that be?