Snowden is a helluva movie, kicking an audience’s ass on a number of levels. I had a chance to see the film last night at a preview event; it opens everywhere on September 16. Go see it.
On one level the film presents Snowden’s story as a political thriller. A brave but frightened man, certain he is doing the right thing but worried if he can pull it off, smuggles some of the NSA’s most secret information out of a secure facility. He makes contact with skeptical journalists in Hong Kong, convinces them of the importance of what he has to say, and then goes on the run from a U.S. government out to arrest, or, possibly assassinate, him. In interviews Stone has made clear that he has dramatized and/or altered some events, and that his film is not a documentary. It does keep you on the edge of your beliefs, watching a story you know as if you don’t.
The next level of the film is a carefully constructed vision of the national security state, seen through Snowden’s eyes. For many Americans, this may be the first time they will react emotionally to the way our government spies on us. It is one thing to “know” the NSA can access webcams at will, it is another to watch a technician “spy” on a Muslim woman undressing in her bedroom.
When Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) slaps a piece of tape over his own webcam before an intimate moment with his girlfriend (played by Shailene Woodley), he has the wool taken from his eyes, his trust in government shattered. He is all of us.
The final level of Snowden is perhaps the most important.
Director Oliver Stone is in the business of creating counter-myths at critical points in time, and his work is best understood in that context.
Even as most Americans still believed the myth that while the Vietnam was bad, the warriors were not, Stone showed us the dark side in Platoon. In the 1980s, when making money was seen as the best of America, Stone gave us Wall Street, and turned the myth “greed is good” from an instructional line out of an MBA program to a condemnation of how we all suffered when the bubble broke in the financial markets.
And so with Snowden, which makes clear the myth of a benign national security (“nothing to hide, nothing to fear,” they’re the good guys protecting us) is anything but. The NSA and other agencies want to vacuum it all up, every communication, everywhere. They then move on to controlling our communications; the movie illustrates the depth of NSA’s penetration into the Japanese electrical grid by imagining a black out of Tokyo, and shows us how an NSA technical mistake reveals how they could shut down the Internet across the Middle East.
In what is the most Oliver Stone-like scene in perhaps any of his movies, Snowden’s CIA boss confronts him, suspicious of wrongdoing. Their video conference discussion starts with Snowden at one end of the table, the boss’ face on a monitor at the other. As the scene unfolds and the intensity increases, Snowden moves closer to the screen until his head is a small dot, and the boss’ face takes over the audience’s whole field of view. The government itself has morphed into Big Brother before your eyes.
For many aware viewers, a lot of this may seem old hat — of course the NSA is doing all that.
But imagine the impact of Snowden. Thoughts that have largely been laid out only on blogs and left-of-center, non-main stream media, are now in suburban multiplexes, all carefully wrapped inside a thriller Tom Clancy fans will enjoy.
You can’t get much more radical than that.
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