Dir. Oliver Stone. U.S. 2016

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In 1848, Henry David Thoreau wrote an essay that he called “Civil Disobedience.” That essay expressed the view that when a person's conscience and the laws clash, that person must follow his or her conscience. Thoreau himself set an example by refusing to pay taxes as an act of protest against slavery and against the Mexican-American War. This idea of a citizen’s right to disobey unjust laws has also been demonstrated in such events as the Boston Tea Party, the civil rights struggles in the South during the 1960s, Gandhi’s non-violent revolution in India, the fight in South Africa against apartheid, and many others.

In that tradition, 29-year-old Edward Snowden, a former American intelligence contractor, leaked classified information to the press in 2013 that revealed the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on U.S. citizens. His action led to his passport being cancelled and his being stranded in Moscow where he has remained. If he returns home, he will be charged under the 1917 Espionage Act and legally prohibited from speaking to a jury about his motivations. Oliver Stone ("Platoon," "Savages"), whose 1991 film JFK dramatized widespread doubts about the official version of the JFK assassination, is back with a hard-hitting docudrama about Edward Snowden. The film, simply called Snowden, was co-written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald and based on the books “The Snowden Files,” by Luke Harding, and “Time of the Octopus,” by Anatoly Kucherena.

It is basically a solid but conventional biopic that lacks the exhilarating pace of Stone’s earlier films and does not provide any new information that is not available in Laura Poitras’ Oscar winning documentary Citizenfour, but further opens the debate between freedom and security. The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("Looper") as the introverted whistleblower whose actions opened up a debate about balancing individual rights with the need for security. The film opens with a scene that those who have seen the documentary will be familiar with, the gathering in a Hong Kong hotel room of Snowden (Levitt), director Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo, "The Big Short"), and Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zahary Quinto, "Star Trek Beyond") and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson, "Selma"). The tension is palpable as the young whistleblower shows them the proof of the illegal acts committed by U.S. intelligence in the name of national security.

The anxiety keeps building as they await the leak of the explosive material to the Manchester Guardian in England and Snowden fears he could be arrested or even killed at any time. The film then flashes ten years back to fill in Snowden’s back story, including his relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley, “Allegiance”) and his brief military career where his training to be a Green Beret was cut short after a fall revealed two broken legs. Though he lacks the academic background, Snowden goes to work for the CIA, hired by fictional CIA instructor Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans, “Alice Through the Looking Glass”) after impressive qualifying test results. It is there that he learns of secret surveillance of foreign governments such as the hacking of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone and the gathering of data on U.S. citizens whether under suspicion of terrorism or not.

He is disturbed when Gabriel, a hang-loose fellow employee, (Ben Schnetzer) allows him an unauthorized peak at a comprehensive NSA search engine called XKeyscore, and the “optic nerve” that can monitor every phone and computer or even the screen itself. The danger is there, Snowden realized, “when everything you’ve ever done, every purchase you’ve ever made, everywhere you’ve ever traveled with a cell phone in your pocket is suddenly available to third parties.” When Snowden asks him about FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) which requires a warrant for these types of searches, Gabe tells him FISA is simply a government-controlled rubber stamp for government surveillance.

The line is finally crossed for Snowden when he is asked to find derogatory personal data on a Pakistani banker (Bhasker Patel), and then compromise him by making a false report about his drunk driving. While credit must be given to Stone for tackling an important subject and Snowden definitely has a strong point of view, I have some reservations at this point about the film’s glorification of a man whose full story has yet to be told. It does succeed, however, in allowing a wider audience to hear Snowden’s point of view about the abuses that can happen if there is too much emphasis is placed on national security at the expense of civil liberties. Snowden said, “Privacy is the fountainhead of all our rights, from which all rights are derived. It’s what makes you an individual. Freedom of speech doesn’t have much room if you don’t have the protected space.”


Howard Schumann

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