Film and Book Reviews

Snowden explores high price of security


By Wendy Knowlton

September 28 2016

Oliver Stone’s Snowden is a thought-provoking film. It explores the ethics of a government putting security before individuals’ rights to privacy, and of an individual choosing to blow the whistle on such practices. When former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the NSA’s monitoring capabilities to the media, some saw him as a patriot, applying moral brakes to the USA’s increasingly Big Brother surveillance tactics. Others labelled him a traitor, and had he not fled the country he would have been charged under the Espionage Act. Stone doesn’t try to present both sides. His Snowden (a subtle and convincing performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a hero – a genius who sees more clearly than others, and at high personal cost, does what he believes to be right.

Tech-savvy Snowden came from a family committed to either the US military or government. When seeking employment with the CIA and NSA he was easily able to attest that the USA was “the greatest country in the world”. But after shining in training and begging for experience in field work as well as cyberspace, Snowden is exposed to young men in love with their own cleverness, and older men revelling in power. These men don’t target specific threats to national security. They spy on and exploit anyone. Oblivious at first to the unashamed pragmatism of his mentor, Corbin O’Brien (Rhys Ifans), who shares a surname with one of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s villains, Snowden is increasingly disillusioned; worried about the power of the institutions he’s experienced and the lies being told to the public about the extent of their reach.

Stone makes it clear that Snowden could have opted for comfort and normality. He had a strong relationship with his partner Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), and his programming skills meant money would come easily, but he couldn’t simply ignore what he discovered. The film endorses his choices. A former intelligence officer (Nicholas Cage) smiles in satisfaction when the revelations hit the news – “The kid did it,” he cries. Snowden’s selflessness is emphasised. He’s determined to reveal his identity so no one else comes under suspicion and withholds specifics that could endanger lives or operations. A colleague helps him conceal a dropped memory card, obviously containing stolen data, and Lindsay joins him in exile when his passport is cancelled and he is trapped in Russia. The real Snowden is shown addressing a supportive audience via video link and in glowing family snaps with Lindsay. This is not an ambiguous portrait, but Gordon-Levitt makes it one that is easy to accept.

In an increasingly dangerous world, sacrifices might be required in order to anticipate terrorist plots and prevent carnage, but Snowden asked whether those called upon to sacrifice their privacy had actually agreed to do so. His call was for transparency, and his actions led to limits being placed on the NSA’s powers. Is this a victory for human rights or a handicap for those seeking to preserve peace? Snowden promotes the first option, but audiences will still ask questions, and consider what their answers might be.