It was only a matter of time till they made a film on Edward Snowden. Even without the real-world debate shadowing the ex-NSA whistleblower like the CIA, his story is a rare combination of all the necessary ingredients that get Hollywood execs hot and bothered: Drama, intrigue, international espionage, a global manhunt, heroism – and even romance.
Snowden, the film, is directed by a man as polarising as Snowden himself. Four decades into a career that has seen its share of ups and downs, Oliver Stone has become a man known more for his liberal politics than his films – which is not surprising, since he doesn’t make them as regularly anymore. And the ones he does don’t quite seem to connect with audiences like some of his best used to.
But in many ways, Stone is the perfect filmmaker to tell Snowden’s tale. The film arrives, surprisingly, while the debate is still fresh – unlike the ill-fated Julian Assange biopic The Fifth Estate starring Benedict Cumberbatch. That film was undone by a lethal combination of apathy and dislike surrounding the central character, and not, as many reviews at the time pointed, because of the quality of the film.
It is 2016, and Edward Snowden is in Russia, living under asylum for leaking thousands of classified documents that revealed the NSA’s (National Security Agency, an intelligence outfit whose job is to monitor and collect information for intelligence and counterintelligence purposes) involvement in mass surveillance.
He has been called a hero, a traitor and a spy. He could reasonably be all three. But, according to Slate’s Fred Kaplan, projecting the various sides to Snowden’s story is the last thing on Oliver Stone’s mind. In a fascinating piece that ran Friday, Kaplan asserts that Stone’s film is above all, a fairytale.
In a series of arguments, Kaplan says that not only was Snowden not a whistleblower ‘as the phrase is broadly understood’, Stone’s film ‘goes beyond dramatic license to distort, even falsify, the picture’.
While arguing the ‘broad understanding’ of the term whistleblower, or any other word or phrase for that matter, is embarking on a fool’s errand, the issue of dramatic license is slightly more objective – if only just. While Snowden is hardly the first film (and most definitely not the last) to use dramatic license to embellish certain facts, it can’t be compared to, say, a run-of-the-mill biopic that plays around with the chronology of events in its subject’s life. Snowden’s story is simply too important, and too hot-topic to deviate too drastically from fact.
But according to Kaplan, that is just what it does. One of the harsher declarations he makes is by first clarifying what the term whistleblower means and what Snowden really did. Kaplan says that because ‘intercepting communications of foreign powers’ is in the NSA’s charter, Snowden’s act can’t be called whistleblowing, but is, in fact, ‘an attempt to blow US intelligence operations’.
Two things come to mind: While it is in the NSA’s charter to, essentially, spy on other countries (which make no mistake, most countries do), domestic surveillance was the real bone of contention. Snowden’s leaks ushered in an age of paranoia. Suddenly, social media transformed into Big Brother’s all-seeing eye.
A recent interview conducted by Shane Smith from VICE showed Snowden as quite the tragic character, living a life constantly having to look over his shoulder. He was demonstrating to Smith how easy it is for intelligence agencies to hack into any cellphone, and how he manages to evade them. His famously calm monotone could barely conceal the paranoid frenzy in his voice. All that was missing was a tinfoil hat and a placard with the words ‘The end is nigh’ written on it.
In what is definitely not a coincidence, a ‘Pardon Edward Snowden’ petition has been launched with support from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and scores of public figures, to coincide with the film’s release. President Obama, while acknowledging the debate Snowden’s actions have ignited, has thus far refused to grant pardon, full or otherwise. Bernie Sanders however, could not be clearer: “The interests of justice would be best served if our government granted @Snowden some form of clemency,” he said in a tweet.
And this is the general trend. Vocal liberals like Sanders and TV host John Oliver – and of course, Oliver Stone - have always sided with Snowden. And we must also bear in mind Slate’s rather iffy reputation as a contrarian publication.
Most claims Kaplan makes aren’t backed with credibility. At one point he even concedes that it is quite reasonable to assume that his sources on this story ‘are lying’ since they’re ‘part of the establishment after all’. But he’s met one of them, he says. And in his opinion, the man was a ‘straight shooter’.
The rest of his allegations range from having proof Snowden cheated a ‘famously brutal test’ to gaining access to secret documents by ‘persuading 20-25 of his colleagues to share their logins and passwords’ – for which they were later fired for their ‘careless trust’.
After convincing himself that it is probably unlikely that Snowden is Russian spy, Kaplan ponders the possibility of him being under the mercy of the Russians, who admittedly don’t have any reason to grant him asylum besides squeezing information out of him. But recently, Snowden has been criticising the Russian government of its own surveillance practices, which even Kaplan agrees is rather ‘brave’.
He ends his piece with an attempt at film criticism. After dismissing the chemistry between the leads Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley, he sums up his review with ‘it’s a bore’. But he’s bang on about Citizenfour, the documentary that is as intimate a look as you can hope for about this subject as possible. Snowden ‘leaked’ the documents with the help of journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras in a Hong Kong hotel. Poitras had cameras capture all of it. Citizenfour is the film she made. It’s set in the hotel and documents the entire operation almost step by step. And as Kaplan rightly says: “That’s the one to watch.”
As for Oliver Stone’s film, there is no reason other than his own lacklustre late-period output to be worried. Fact-based Hollywood biopics are rarely ever fact-based. But if facts are what you’re after, here goes.
In 2013, just after the Snowden’s leaks, President Obama, calling the NSA ‘transparent’ said, “What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a US person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls, and the NSA cannot target your emails … and have not.”
In January 2014, he gave another speech that a New York Times editorial described ‘in large part an admission that he (Obama) had been wrong’. “Trust us, we won’t abuse the data we collect,” he said, calling for major reforms, restrictions and “‘a transition that will end ‘the bulk collection of phone metadata as it currently exists.’”
In December 2014, a joint statement from the Office of the Director General of National Intelligence provided an update: As ‘a first step’ in that transition, Obama had ‘directed he Attorney General to work with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to ensure that, absent a true emergency, telephony metadata can only be queried after a judicial finding that there is a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the selection term is associated with an approved international terrorist organization’.
He never thanked Snowden.
The writer tweets at @NaaharRohan