Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 15, 2016


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:50 pm

Like Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and John Ford, Oliver Stone is a true auteur—a director who puts his unique stamp on a body of work defined by a particular theme and aesthetic. In Stone’s case, it is the story of lost innocence as the protagonist discovers essential truths about himself and the debased American system he mistakenly believed in. In “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Platoon”, the hero is a young man who joins the military to defend freedom in Vietnam only realizing in the end that he was a hired gun for Wall Street as Smedley Butler once put it. Landing a blue-chip job in that “Wall Street”, a young stockbroker decides that jail and a loss of a lucrative career is preferable to robbing ordinary working people with a fountain pen as Woody Guthrie put it in “Pretty Boy Floyd”. Even if “JFK” trafficked in wildly improbable conspiracy mongering, it shared their basic message, namely that the military-industrial complex and the big banks are enemies of peace and freedom.

After a long drought, Stone has made the kind of film he became famous for. Like Ron Kovic, the real-life hero of “Born on the Fourth of July”, Edward Snowden came from a family that embraced rightwing patriotic values. His father was a Coast Guard officer as was his maternal grandfather who became a senior FBI official after leaving the military and who was at the Pentagon on September 11th 2001.

Snowden enlisted in the Army to train for the Special Forces, an elite commando unit, but had to leave basic training after breaking both legs in exercises. He told the Guardian not long after he became a whistle-blower why he wanted to become a killer for Uncle Sam: “I wanted to fight in the Iraq war because I felt like I had an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression”, the same kind of beliefs that motivated Ron Kovic to join the Marines in September 1964.

In Stone’s classic films, there is an adrenaline rush of sensationalism that propels the films forward: gun battles in Vietnam, eye-popping decadence on Wall Street or the skullduggery of assassins determined (rather improbably) to get rid of a president who had decided to end American intervention in Vietnam.

I was wary about how Stone would treat Edward Snowden’s odyssey from gung-ho patriot to principled opponent of unlawful surveillance. Since sensationalism was part of the Oliver Stone brand name, I half-expected “Snowden” to have scenes of the hero ducking under gunfire like Matt Damon in the Jason Bourne movies, especially when we are told as the film begins that it was “inspired” by the Edward Snowden story.

The big surprise is that Stone has made his classic redemption film but without the sensationalism we have grown to expect, a sign that even a seventy-year-old director is capable of growth. (Is there hope for me?) “Snowden” is not a spy thriller. It is instead a story of the moral and political awakening of a hero wrestling with the yawning gulf between the patriotic beliefs he had held since boyhood and American assaults on both people in far-off lands and those living inside the “Shining City upon a Hill”. Like Ron Kovic, Edward Snowden became a radical—not so much in the sense of embracing Marxist ideology but in sacrificing everything he had treasured up to the point when he became a whistle-blower: his livelihood, his prestige as a high-powered security engineer, and—most of all—his citizenship. Risking the charge of espionage, he stood up for the right to privacy, a basic right we are supposed to enjoy in a democracy. If Orwell’s classic novel was forever linked with the words “Big Brother is Watching You”, Snowden risked becoming an “unperson” in 2013 because he would not accept Big Brother reading your email, listening in on your phone calls or any other forms of electronic surveillance.

The film is structured as a series of encounters with people in authority who violate his sense of elementary rights to privacy. When he is in a training class for the CIA, the instructor tells the class that President Bush has a green light to snoop on Americans without a warrant because the 2008 amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 gives him that right. As Edward Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s face takes on the look of someone being told that it is okay to use the Constitution as toilet paper, which is essentially what the amendment did.

Gordon-Levitt is not only a fine actor who conveys Snowden’s combination of nerdiness and boy scout like idealism but someone ideally suited to bring such a character to life. His father was the news director of the Pacifica station in Los Angeles and his mother was a Peace and Freedom candidate in the 1970s.

In addition to showing how Snowden was pushed to the limit by a Deep State that violated constitutional rights while using verbiage defending them, “Snowden” is a love story about his long-term relationship with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), a woman he met through an online dating service geared to computer geeks. As you can imagine, the stresses he dealt with working for agencies he rapidly began losing faith in put the relationship through the mill. Ironically, it was her liberal politics that first got Snowden doubting the patriotic ideology he lived by and finally led to his putting his life on the line. In the Trotskyist movement we used to call that “horizontal recruitment”.

The screenplay was co-written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, a young screenwriter who has a BA in English from Harvard University. If he was responsible in some way for keeping “Snowden” close to the facts, he is to be commended.

If you’ve been watching “Mr. Robot” on the USA network, you’ll be familiar with the way a tale about hacking or whistle-blowing can become a peg to hang all sorts of paranoia and geek arcana upon. “Snowden” eschews any such temptations and instead focuses on the broader questions of privacy and accountability, matters that remain on the front burner given the government’s battles with Apple over bypassing the iPhone’s encryption features. It is very likely that if Snowden had not blown the whistle, Tim Cook would have given the FBI the green light.

Even if “Snowden” had been a lesser film, it was of major significance in putting the status of Edward Snowden on the front pages of newspapers and in the evening news. A campaign to pardon him has been launched by the ACLU to coincide with the film’s opening in major theaters everywhere. An op-ed in today’s NY Times co-authored by Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch and Salil Shetty, the secretary general of Amnesty International, makes the case for pardoning Snowden:

Since the United States canceled his passport, stranding him in the Moscow airport, Mr. Snowden has continued to demonstrate the principles that led him to disclose profoundly disturbing facts about surveillance overreach. He is the head of a human rights group, the Freedom of the Press Foundation; he’s developing technology to protect journalists in dangerous zones around the world from life-threatening surveillance; and he has frequently criticized the human rights and technology policies of Russia, the only country that stands between him and a high-security prison in the United States.

As should come as no surprise, the traditional rightwing views Snowden as a traitor. In a WSJ editorial, Hoover Institute fellow Josef Joffe regards Snowden as “the greatest counterintelligence disaster since the Rosenbergs and Klaus Fuchs, who betrayed America’s most precious nuclear secrets to Moscow.” What about Donald Trump, who has the reputation of being a friend of the Kremlin that is supposedly using Snowden as an asset? He told Fox News: “I think Snowden is a terrible threat, I think he’s a terrible traitor, and you know what we used to do in the good old days when we were a strong country — you know what we used to do to traitors, right?”

In an October 13, 2015 debate, Clinton was asked whether Snowden was a hero or a traitor. She said:

He broke the laws of the United States. He could have been a whistleblower. He could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistleblower. He could have raised all the issues that he has raised. And I think there would have been a positive response to that.

Meanwhile, Jill Stein, a candidate who will be excluded from the debates, was clear about what Snowden deserved:

If elected president I will immediately pardon Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and John Kiriakou for their important work in exposing the massive, systematic violation of our constitutional rights. I would invite them to the White House to publicly acknowledge their heroism, and create a role for them in the Stein-Baraka Green party administration to help us create a modern framework that protects personal privacy while still conducting effective investigations where warranted.

For some of my comrades, the name Jill Stein is associated with subservience to the Kremlin. Would her advocacy for Snowden be linked in some fashion with a conspiracy to advance Putin’s agenda and sap the strength of the USA, so necessary according to some leftists as a counterforce to Russia?

Maybe Edward Snowden is not the person such a conspiracy can rely upon:


Snowden is a man of integrity and principle. Oliver Stone has made a spellbinding film about one of our heroes. My choice for one of the best films of 2016.


  1. Thank you, Louis.

    Comment by Manuel García, Jr. — September 16, 2016 @ 3:54 am

  2. Agree that it’s a good film and Snowden is a man of integrity. You might have also noted that both Stein and Greenwald (together with the usual cast of characters who are ‘against criticizing Putin’ if not outright supportive) have completely ignored Snowden’s criticisms of Putin and his contention that Russia was behind the DNC hack. They use Snowden to serve their limited agenda and simply dismiss whatever is inconvenient. After living in Russia for 3 years, Snowden has some insight, and you’d think people like Stein would want to learn from that insight, but nope! She’s too busy defending Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on the grounds that Russia used to “own” Ukraine. It’s kind of amazing how the “anti-imperialists” don’t even seem to know what imperialism is. Stein is dolt on foreign policy and impossible to take seriously.

    Are you still arguing that leftists should vote for Stein? That’s one position that seems inconsistent with your other views. Yes, I can understand the pro 3rd party argument, but Stein is not the right candidate to launch such a movement.

    Comment by Voline (@pyotr_kropotkin) — September 17, 2016 @ 5:16 am

  3. At the risk of sounding stupid again and ‘not understanding how things happen’ I don’t see why secrecy is such a big deal. Most people , rightly in my opinion, don’t care very much about all this surveilling, and what is important for the Left are surely questions of equality, and power. And no secrets, really preferable, if anything. Who cares about secrecy really. Malcolm Muggeridge who worked for secret services in WW2 for Britain thought it was a colossal waste of time and effort. And Snowden is no hero for the Left in my opinion, nor Stone, who can’t say enough good things about Putin. He is another a-moral idiot on politics, a la Jill Stein. Politskaya, a brave journalist like that, or Marie Colvin , or the White Helmets, about whom a new film is showing on Netflix now, these are far, far, worthier of the admiration of Leftists.

    From a review of Luke Hardings book on Snowden , ‘ What’s striking is not so much the range of Snowden’s fantasies as the depth of his political commitment. He emerges as a committed Republican, a libertarian, a huge fan of Ron Paul, a gun lover and believer in national security with a tendency to suggest that anyone who thinks otherwise deserves to be shot. As a libertarian, what really gets Snowden’s goat is the thought of government getting its tentacles into everything. He has no problem with spying and secrecy in their place (in Iran, for instance). What terrifies him is the idea that no one is setting limits to it all. Like many supporters of Ron Paul, Snowden would like to go back to the gold standard, because he thinks letting politicians print money is a recipe for inflation and ultimate global ruin. He sees the politicisation of surveillance as part of the same pattern: evidence of a system spinning crazily out of control.’

    In a way, Snowden’s own experiences confirmed that he was right. The monster was so big and so unwieldy that it didn’t notice what was going on. It was as if it had no time for old-fashioned security checks in the brave new world of big data. At Booz, Snowden was able to scrape vast amounts of data off the NSA computers, using what now appears to have been relatively old-fashioned technology, without anyone detecting what he was up to.
    Snowden is probably right that what’s really scary is the thought of so much power being in the hands of people with so little idea of what it means. When it turned out that the NSA had been bugging Angela Merkel’s phone, with disastrous political consequences, no one could say what the point had been. As John McCain told Der Spiegel, the only plausible explanation is that “they did it because they could”. ‘

    They did it because they could – in other words, like Muggeridge said, just rather pointless.

    Meanwhile Snowden ends up in Putin’s Russia where everything is under control all right.

    Comment by Matthew Jackson — September 17, 2016 @ 5:51 pm

  4. At the risk of sounding stupid again and ‘not understanding how things happen’ I don’t see why secrecy is such a big deal.

    Because it can be used, for example, to identify trade union organizers who have gotten jobs in Amazon in order to build a union. Or to identify socialists like me who had begun working as a programmer when the FBI sent a postcard to my workplace trying to get me fired. The excuse given is to preempt terrorism but that same capability can be used to curb dissent.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 17, 2016 @ 6:03 pm

  5. I think I did get my ideas a bit muddled. Increasingly open source investigations mean states will find it harder to do much in secret that is not laid open – like Russia’s invasion in 2014 of eastern Ukraine. In the examples you give I do see the danger. Chomskys film of talks, ‘End of the American Dream’ said only 6% of American workers are in unions in private enterprises? – that is a major problem of ‘consciousness’, and of blatant , open, economic power, not so much a secrecy and privacy problem? I mean I see it is an issue in that situation also, but it is not the decisive thing so much.

    Comment by Matthew Jackson — September 17, 2016 @ 6:31 pm

  6. “Because it can be used, for example, to identify trade union organizers who have gotten jobs in Amazon in order to build a union. Or to identify socialists like me who had begun working as a programmer when the FBI sent a postcard to my workplace trying to get me fired. The excuse given is to preempt terrorism but that same capability can be used to curb dissent.”

    No doubt, but most Americans still don’t seem to care about surveillance. While I really enjoyed “Snowden” and think it’ll improve his reputation, I doubt it will change many minds about surveillance. The film much like the original revelation just assumes that the reader/viewer will share the outrage over mass surveillance of Americans. After watching “Snowden,” I’m sure many Americans will have reservations about surveilling, but for the most part it may inspire a certain amount of awe and comfort over the government’s capabilities in penetrating foreign countries (perceived adversaries). More attention should be given to making a positive case against this kind of surveillance. For instance, what happens if an unsavory dictator like Trump takes power? He could abuse that power and turn the country into a totalitarian nightmare. This scenario may have been hinted at in the film, but it was more like a throwaway line. Generally, Americans are inclined to trust traditional politicians to not abuse such powers, especially a figure like Obama who seems so reasonable and restrained.

    Comment by Voline (@pyotr_kropotkin) — September 17, 2016 @ 10:27 pm

  7. The Americans were bugging Merkel’s phone because they wanted to be sure that Merkel was not double crossing them. IMHQ

    Comment by Curt Kastens — September 23, 2016 @ 9:22 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: