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.