Edward Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sounds almost bewildered: “Lots of people cruise happily through life. Why can’t I?”. That’s the unspoken question at the heart of Oliver Stone’s biopic of the famed whistle-blower (a.k.a. traitor): What made this man, an NSA contractor with top-level access, decide to throw it all away – the prestige, the work, the big salary – by revealing the global mass surveillance carried out by his bosses? What made Snowden (and specifically Snowden) rise up against the System, with no obvious benefit to himself? The film, it must be said, doesn’t really answer that question, nor does it delve very deeply in its hero’s psyche; yet it’s still an absorbing two hours on what’s surely the biggest issue of our time, viz. what happens to the individual – individual space, individual freedom – in a world defined by technology.
Stone has been here before, his 21st-century films having mostly concentrated on great and not-so-great men (Alexander, Fidel Castro, George W. Bush) in the maelstrom of History. His 20th-century films were quite different, with a wild, tumultuous, often drug-fuelled style which he’s now backed away from; that’s a shame, in the case of Snowden – the excess and bedlam of Natural Born Killers might’ve been a perfect way to express a world overrun with data – and the film is inadequate in other ways too. Shailene Woodley is a fine actress but she doesn’t get much to play in the role of Lindsay Mills (Stone has never been known for rich female characters), a devoted girlfriend whose main interests appear to be dance classes, “social perks”, and looking after Ed.
Snowden himself is charismatic, however. You can see the man himself at the very end, from his exile in Russia, but he’s speaking at a staged online event and obviously ‘acting’; a better showcase might be Citizenfour, a documentary made by Laura Poitras in 2014 during the days in Hong Kong when he actually blew the whistle, handing reams of incriminating data to journalists from The Guardian – and Snowden is magnificent in that, calm, courageous and obviously highly intelligent. Snowden starts from the same point, the meeting in Hong Kong, then fans out into flashbacks – from 2004, when he tried and failed to complete Special Forces training, through a decade of increasing disillusionment. In 2004, fired up by 9/11 and a burning desire to serve, he says the USA is “the greatest country in the world” and means it. Years later, when he makes the same statement, a polygraph reveals that he’s lying.
Why, though? What made him change – especially when so many others, including other very smart techies, continued to play along? This is where Snowden waffles slightly. Lindsay helps, to be sure, her more liberal politics rubbing off on Ed (she signs an anti-Bush petition on their first date; he demurs, saying he doesn’t like “bashing my country”). Nicolas Cage as an embittered mentor also helps, informing the naïve young Snowden that the real engine of American government is “military-industrial happiness management”. Above all, the dirty tricks played by the CIA – using intel gathered by mass surveillance – make him uncomfortable, ditto the ruthlessness of drone warfare (“We track ’em, you whack ’em”) and soldiers’ chilling tales of killing kids in the name of combating terrorism: “It’s war. It’s a job…”
All true, all relevant; but the film conflates the havoc that’s been wreaked by a decade-long War on Terror with the philosophical problem of a right to privacy – a subtle slip-up that probably wouldn’t be made by someone as smart as Snowden. Would he have been OK with his job if the data (and so-called metadata) were used morally and virtuously? Or is the collection of data itself the issue? Stone is very clear that it’s the latter: “Every day you’re just sitting in a database, waiting to be looked at,” he has Snowden say. “Not just terrorists or corporations, but you!”. A Skype conversation with a CIA big-shot explicitly references Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’. The problem is the creation of a system which an elected dictator might someday use for malevolent ends (yes, Donald Trump makes a brief appearance) – but the script never shows why Snowden in particular should be so disturbed by that fact, to the point of knocking over the whole house of cards.
Has the house been knocked over? That’s another thing. His only agenda, says Ed, is to tell the world what’s going on, “so the people can decide” – but what have we the people done in the three years since, and indeed what can we do? The film ends with news of the NSA’s surveillance programme being shut down – but for how long? Even with safeguards, this technology isn’t going away; the NSA’s problem with the internet is everybody’s problem with the internet, viz. that it’s there and it’s all too easy to abuse it. Snowden is passable in itself, but the questions it raises make it must-see viewing – above all, as in other Oliver Stone films, what can the individual do when being buffeted by historical forces? “One man can stop the motor of the world,” says Ed Snowden, quoting Ayn Rand. If only.