Every whistleblower undergoes some kind of transformation that pushes them to the point where they make the pivotal decision to challenge power. Oliver Stone’s film about National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden portrays how he went from a person reluctant to question the government to a person who believed it was virtuous to challenge abuses of government power.
“Snowden” unfolds in the Mira Hong Kong Hotel, where Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) met with journalists Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto). The script intermittently flashes back to periods of Snowden’s life, from his time in a military boot camp to his time working for the CIA in Geneva to when he worked at an NSA facility in Oahu, Hawaii.
Gordon-Levitt nails the intonation of Snowden’s voice. Shailene Woodley is fabulous as his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, and the choice to make much of the film revolve around Snowden’s relationship with Mills positively elevates the film to a fairly compelling love story. In fact, the way the story is told suggests Snowden’s views on questioning the government changed from post-9/11 flag-waving nationalism the more his romance with Mills blossomed, especially since she was against the Iraq War and other acts of President George W. Bush’s administration.
Jesselyn Radack, a whistleblower attorney who has represented Snowden, told Shadowproof, “I found the depiction of Ed to be very fair and balanced. There are so many caricatures of him, as well as a tendency to see him in binary terms: hero versus villain. This humanizes him as the multi-faceted, thoughtful individual he is.”
“Oliver Stone met with Snowden in Russia at least half a dozen times over a period of years,” according to Radack. She recognized that those meetings could be intense on a “multiplicity of different levels,” and “Stone and Snowden are also both very cerebral, sensitive, thoughtful, and self-aware,” and those meetings informed the film.
NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, who was a technical consultant for the film, also found Stone captured Snowden well by showing the character and not some caricature.
“The human element is very much on the screen,” Drake contended. “I believe that makes the movie. I don’t think it would be the same without the relationship, and it wasn’t a passing relationship. It was a deep relationship, and of course, they discover each other online.”
Mills holds a mirror up to Snowden, Drake added. She forces him to reconcile with American exceptionalism, that license to do whatever is necessary to “prosecute the global war on terrorism” no matter the collateral damage. “That is the beauty of Lindsay, and Lindsay [keeps] checking him in that regard.”
There are few family scenes in the film. According to Radack, “I understand there are strong privacy considerations for that, but I think, for example, that the fact that there’s a strong military and government tradition in his family and background is very interesting. He doesn’t come from a family of former hippies.”
Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage) and Corbin O’Brien (Rhys Ifans), two composite characters in the film, are vehicles for injecting some key ideas about security into the film. Forrester is a former intelligence official, who Snowden crosses paths with during his CIA training. The character has a background in the analog era of surveillance. O’Brien is a superior to Snowden. He acts like a mentor and tries to indoctrinate Snowden and pull him deeper into the security state because Snowden is very skilled at developing surveillance programs.
Drake said the Forrester character was a combination of whistleblowers like Bill Binney and himself, as well as other former intelligence officials. Corbin was developed to represent American exceptionalism or the imperial mindset. As Drake noted, the character says secrecy protects security, and security is victory. “That’s an empire line.”
One scene that really sticks out in the film for Drake involves O’Brien addressing the New York Times story, which revealed the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program in 2005. It reflects the lie that the U.S. is a nation of laws. In reality, there are two governments, “a shadow government and normative state,” and the rules are militarized. The battlefield is global, and the purpose of any program or policy, which may undermine the rule of law, can be justified by a kind of “linear logical madness.” So, Fourth Amendment or privacy concerns are not permitted to overshadow the pursuit of security.
Drake’s act of whistleblowing and the zeal in which the U.S. government pursued him with Espionage Act charges features prominently in the film. Snowden grapples with how the government is trying to silence Drake, Binney, and other whistleblowers. It forms part of the inspiration for Snowden to flee the country instead of going through internal channels to expose wrongdoing.
“One thing I was worried about—I was worried it would get too in the weeds technically, and this was part of my role, ensuring that it didn’t get buried by the technology,” Drake shared. The real focus was on the change that occurred in Snowden, his personal transformation.
Stone was “hungry for detail.” He tried to absorb everything he possibly could, according to Drake. Like, “What was the context? What was it like to work there? What was the culture like? What are the buildings like? What was the place like? The people you reported to?”
It all could have become too dense, but fortunately, the details never suffocate the profound relationship between Snowden and Mills brought to life by Gordon-Levitt and Woodley. What Drake calls a “seductive world” pulls on him, and the “Siren call of secrecy and security” is powerful. She wants him to leave, but he cannot just leave.
“I was willing to go to prison, even if I lost my family,” Drake recalled. Likewise, the film shows Snowden willing to sacrifice all those years he spent with someone whom he cares about deeply.
The story of the journalists, who wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning stories on documents from Snowden, plays a small role in the film. Leo and Quinto give decent performances, but they aren’t given much opportunity to showcase their abilities to become these characters. The audience never really is offered a chance to get into what they were going through. (Perhaps, that is because we already have Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary, “Citizenfour,” and Stone did not want to replicate too many scenes from that film.)
Asked about how the film may further contribute to the shift in public opinion toward Snowden, from vilification to broad support, Radack responded, “I always have said that Snowden’s trajectory is a marathon, not a sprint. I hope it won’t take decades to resolve, but if you look at the path of someone like Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, it took 40 years for him to go from a ‘traitor’ to a ‘hero.'”