My editor dropped $15 last weekend for me to see Oliver Stone’s Snowden so that, if it wasn’t any good, she wouldn’t waste her own time.
My advice, see it.
It wasn’t disappointing, at all, and I expected that it would be. Reviews have been unimpressive, and the film won’t win any Oscars. But Snowden does raise some thought provoking questions that are relevant to our time.
Well-over two hours long, Snowden moved along at a good pace. The plot was engaging from the first scene forward. The dialogue was generally convincing, with a few exceptions. And the cinematography was evenhanded. It reinforced the film’s not subtle argument: the government has exceeded constitutional and ethical boundaries by way of its surveillance of, well, pretty much everyone, everywhere, all the time. The antagonists justify those excesses with a six-degrees-of-separation sort of logic that means everyone’s fair game to surveil.
It’s a mistake to compare Snowden to the Academy Award winning documentary Citizen Four. Certainly, because Stone chose to retell the story we all saw break in June 2013—a story that’s still pretty fresh in our memory, still unfolding, and still politically and emotionally charged—Stone invites comparisons to “the real story.” That comparison is not terribly helpful. These kinds of comparisons miss an important purpose of the film: Snowden the movie is about transforming Snowden the traitor into Snowden the hero.
Oliver Stone and the Open Source Story Narrated by the Media
Oliver Stone, the cultural mythologist, intends to appropriate the Snowden narrative from the intelligence community or any other voice, Federal or otherwise, telling an ostensibly “factual” version of Snowden’s story that demonizes him. Layers and layers of classified information about Snowden that most of us will never come close to seeing means we will never be able to judge the veracity of whatever yarn officials spin to discredit Snowden.
The only story we know is an open-source story. That story is told by the media and Snowden himself. We’re not much better off in that case. Snowden has a tremendous interest in presenting the facts or telling the story in a way advantageous to him. Likewise, Oliver Stone has a tremendous interest in telling the story in a way that’s advantageous to his own objectives. Telling a factual story has nothing to do with it. Stone only has to tell a convincing story a reasonable number of people will embrace.
Oliver Stone’s objective is to create a hero in the classical sense, and the hero is his Snowden. Stone makes this point clear early in the film. Corbin O’Brian, CIA recruiter and Snowden mentor, asks Snowden about his favorite authors. One of Snowden’s favorites is Joseph Campbell. Joseph Campbell is one of the most well-respected cultural anthropologists in the world. In 1949, Campbell completely changed the way we understand stories, myths, and legends with his Hero With A Thousand Faces. In fact, it was Joseph Campbell to whom George Lucas turned in writing Star Wars and creating classical hero Luke Skywalker and laying out the plot.
Stone’s purpose, not much different from George Lucas’s or any other storyteller’s, is to transform an ordinary man or woman into a hero for the community that needs a hero—to transform Snowden the criminal, the saboteur, the traitor into a classical hero, a savior. You can’t miss that Stone’s Snowden takes a megabite from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Then, banished from the Garden (in this case, the United States, generally, or Hawai’I, more specifically) to the evil empire (Taiwan, Russia, anywhere not the United States), he sends his message, the word of truth, back to save the world. And, of course, there’s hope that Snowden will come (home) again.
Heroes and Villains
In my estimation, Oliver Stone doesn’t achieve his goal. Simply, the movie is not powerful enough to transform Snowden into the kind of hero that motivates action. Although Oliver Stone doesn’t finally achieve the transformation he hopes, Snowden does raise some reasonable questions for us to consider.
The problem here, though, is that while the questions are both legitimate and important, they are questions that have been asked and asked again. They were the same questions of George Orwell’s 1984, for example. Reintroducing them at this moment in a new way could have advantages, to be sure. But these questions are not jarring enough to generate enough new energy.
In my estimation, Snowden first asks us to consider whether the real Edward Snowden is a hero, or a villain. Choosing one or the other isn’t enough. We have to figure out why we believe what we do.
From the perspective of a cleared professional, Snowden asks us to think about lines, about lines we might cross, when, and why. It’s not enough to argue we’d never cross a line. That’s simply not realistic.
Additionally, Snowden reminds that turning one’s head to what are apparently pretty insignificant policy violations in the cleared world opens the door to the next, and the next, implicating more and more people as that circle expands and grows more serious.
And I think one of the most important questions Snowden asks is, how many participants does it take to change simple criminality into defensible policy? If just one person violates another’s right, that’s indefensible. What about if two people violate another’s rights? What if ten people cross the line? What if an entire organization vested with the responsibility to save the nation from terrorism crosses the line? And so on. At what point does the violation become defensible? When is it ok, or ok enough, that we don’t question it?
Snowden won’t win any Oscars. And it’s not by far one of Oliver Stone’s best films. However, it is entertaining enough to see simply to stimulate thought about genuinely important questions, questions that are relevant to every security professional.