It’s often said that a historical dramatization usually has less to say about the time period it is depicting and more about the time in which it is made. When looking at the first big studio depiction of whistleblower Edward Snowden in Oliver Stone’s Snowden, it’s easy to expect some thorny questions to come up. After all, Snowden single-handedly ushered in a new era in how we think about espionage and how we conduct ourselves in the digital realm. So we’re essentially looking at the story of Snowden from the vantage point of the post-Snowden era. However, Stone’s biopic fails to answer many of the audience’s lingering questions about Snowden’s personal history and fill in the litany of blanks that dot his biographies. What is most aggravating is that he doesn’t bother to better illustrate what it actually means to live in the post-Snowden era with the fear and the anxiety that now hangs over every phone call and every web search. But is that a story that we even know how to tell?
Looking at the history of espionage and the NSA in popular culture, it presents perhaps the most notable absence from the spy-rich lore that has entertained the public since WWI. Of all the three-letter agencies that we’re so fond of depicting in films, books, and TV shows, the NSA has remained the most under-defined and lacking of a cultural mascot. While the CIA has Ethan Hunt, the FBI has Mulder and Scully, and the DEA had Hank Schrader, it’s when looking back at the NSA’s representation within film, television, books, and more that things become a lot more nebulous.
It doesn’t take more than a scan of the Wikipedia page “NSA in Popular Culture” to get the sense that Hollywood scribes rarely personify this agency in the form of a charismatic agent—and when they do, like in Sneakers, it’s still in the form of hackers; characters who are untrustworthy by nature (according to Hollywood at least.) Rather, we’ve watched a parade of nameless NSA agents in film and on TV, symbolic of the fact that despite existing since 1952—with the FBI forming in 1953 and CIA in 1947—the NSA didn’t even begin to become a recurring character on-screen until the last decade. One of these early appearances came in the form of a 1968 Star Trek episode when the crew travel from the future to ’68 and encounter a government agent with an NSA ID card. While FBI and CIA agents have been a perennial fixture on shows and movies, there’s always been something futuristic, or not-quite-of-this-moment about the NSA. Pretty much up until the actions of Edward Snowden, the NSA was like a screen for people to project their most out-there, paranoiac worries about the government, many of which would later turn out to be less fringe than imagined—or hoped.
One of the most remarkable examples of this again comes through a sci-fi TV show—despite its origins in cryptology the NSA is frequently associated with alien cover-ups in popular culture. In season nine of The X-Files, we get a glimpse into a downright disturbing depiction of the NSA’s inner workings, an agency whose octopus-like tentacles are able to peer into any open window, bug any phone, and use people as it sees fit. While the show provides the ardent subtext that this is all fictional speculation, it’s hard to forget that through science fiction we often tend to hit upon some eventual truth, although it may be fifty or a hundred years before that truth becomes a reality. And the NSA’s shadowy origins and willingness to stay out of the limelight, while still receiving a lion’s share of government funding, has made it a particularly ripe character through which to channel our most unreasonable–seeming fears about the government’s abilities to survey us and hide dangerous secrets. And frankly, it’s far more preferable to entertain this all as speculative fiction. Because when I first saw the scene of Edward Snowden hiding himself under a bedsheet while typing on his computer in Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, in a single second the all-seeing eye that was the NSA in The X-Files became a disturbing reality for myself, and many other Americans. Regardless of the show or comic book by which any of us has encountered the NSA at some point, the many impossible-seeming fictions long attached to the agency have ceased to be imaginary. So then why does translating Edward Snowden’s story to screen, a story that practically cries out for a Hollywood adaptation, seem to be so slippery?
As Stone’s film makes abundantly clear, any film aiming to tell the story of Snowden is going to have to use Citizenfour as a primary text. Citizenfour is sort of like what would happen if Deep Throat had asked Woodward and Bernstein to bring along a video camera. Conceived out of director Laura Poitras’ and journalist Glenn Greenwald’s contact with Snowden in 2013 and their flying to meet him in Hong Kong where they all holed up together in a hotel room for eight days, Poitras’ film ultimately succeeds as a work of art in being an indirect character study of the young Snowden. Despite revealing little of his personal history over the film’s 110-plus minute run time, he comes across as a determined, intelligent, perhaps naïve, but earnest-as-hell soul with who you can’t help but empathize. After all, isn’t he doing what we’ve all been taught since preschool, to put the common good above his own?
It also becomes increasingly clear as one does some research into Snowden’s background that Citizenfour, at least for the time being, is the most complete and artistically successful portrayal of Snowden. For not only are there massive holes in Snowden’s story that are unlikely to be filled any time soon—such as, what did Snowden do for the eleven days he was in Hong Kong prior to Greenwald and Poitras’ arrival? What’s most astounding about Edward Snowden is not who he is but rather what he did. He ushered in something that each and every one of us will deal with at one point or another. It’s an unveiling. An enlightening. It’s terrifying. Each time you enter a search now, you can’t help but have a second mental voice enter the scene to question the safety of what you’re querying. Could it be interpreted as terrorist-related? What can be qualified as such?
This war-on-us sensibility that now colors so much of our daily life is something that Stone certainly dances around, but his is a film interested in telling a mostly linear narrative, attempting to explain how the seemingly benign Snowden would commit one of the greatest acts of “treason” (or public education, depending on how you see it) in modern history. If there’s one major point to take away from both Citizenfour and Snowden it’s that while everything about the Snowden saga screams “Hollywood,” the person at the center of this drama does not. This reluctance on Snowden’s part to be portrayed as an unequivocal hero, while serving to endear him to the Citizenfour audience, becomes an issue that ultimately undermines Stone’s film.
Despite the number of tell-all’s, essays, and documentaries, we still don’t know too much more about Snowden than what we first learned after he popped up on our collective radar in 2013. Perhaps a different filmmaker would take this considerable dearth surrounding Snowden’s personal life and background as a launching pad to more deeply explore the extent of the U.S. government’s systemic snooping and the culture of conformity within the NSA and other three-letter agencies that led such young recruits to erect a distance between their actions and their own personal reality. Or attempt to measure or qualify the extent to which Snowden’s actions have truly changed so much about our day-to-day lives. Instead, both Stone and his star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the role of Snowden, seem to be suffering from a degree of myopia, convinced that they can reveal some new facet of Snowden’s very being. When Gordon-Levitt’s Snowden first encounters his colleagues spying on a harmless young woman changing clothes via her laptop’s built-in camera, or watches a small town obliterated by a drone strike as air force bros high-five one another behind him, Stone chooses to fixate more on Stone as a moral compass for the viewer. He treats his story as a heroic monomyth instead of plumbing the depths of this environment where spying on citizens and waging war from a desktop doesn’t even raise an eyebrow amongst these young, mostly male recruits who are eager to serve their country, yet fail to weigh the costs of what doing so means.
Stone makes a big gamble in investing so much pathos and gravitas in his rendering of Snowden, especially when the actor playing him seems more concerned with biographical veracity than creating a three-dimensional, fleshed-out character. While Snowden, the human being, is as charming and humble and just all-around endearing as one can be in Citizenfour, in Stone’s film, Gordon-Levitt’s reciting of Stone’s script and his own commitment to an accurate depiction somehow makes this sweet young man almost unlikeable. Ultimately, Gordon-Levitt does not give a performance as much as a reenactment of the person we had last seen in Citizenfour, the actor’s voice perfectly capturing the measured monotone that Snowden often leans on, belying a sense of anxiety and doubt. But somewhere along the way of Gordon-Levitt attempting to truly inhabit the conflicted character of Snowden, he instead drains the protagonist of any nuance, making him someone who is simply difficult to like and we find ourselves struggling to root for him, up until Snowden himself make a cameo at the movie’s end and reminds us of the oddball charm for which he’s both loved and reviled.
Of course, unlike Poitras, Stone has tasked himself with filling in the rest of Snowden’s life outside of Citizenfour‘s eight days. Perhaps that’s why he brings in Snowden’s apparent Special Forces training within the film’s first few minutes, to signal that he’s headed into uncharted territory. Stone is starting with a part of Snowden’s biography that is still hazy with the Pentagon only confirming that he enlisted as a special forces recruit in 2004 and was discharged four months later. So it’s clear from the get-go that we’re not getting a strict recounting of Snowden’s biography, but a Hollywood dramatization. And this dramatization comes replete with its own “big baddie” in the form of Rhys Ifans’ Corbin O’Brien, whose on-the-nose name is taken from the villain in George Orwell’s 1984. Corbin is sort of a catch-all character who serves to symbolize much of what the movie’s moral compass would consider as “bad” about the government’s action. This over-the-top characterization comes off feeling like a red herring that distracts from the greater issues of questionable governmental behavior and the pathological need to account for its citizens’ behavior. What Snowden revealed was not the actions of one rogue government agent, but a deep-rooted government surveillance program that insidiously sunk its roots into both the public and private sectors, making thousands of individuals like Snowden culpable in the process. And in turn, this focus on character over conspiracy feels like a bit of a cop-out for Stone, that radical auteur of singing political dramas like Salvador or Born on the Fourth of July that feature strong characters alongside a wider interrogation of our government’s past actions.
And while critiquing the movie solely on a factual basis misses many of its smaller successes—Melissa Leo and Zachary Quinto are both fascinating in their respective portrayals of Poitras and Greenwald—it’s fair to condemn it for failing to make due on the promise of contributing a new and insightful angle on the Snowden story. Stone gives an overly literal reading of a story that is frankly missing the facts needed for such a reading, and one can’t help but feel we’re being subjected to the director’s own obstinance, especially when there are so many other angles that would have likely yielded different treasures. Once again, this all comes back to the fact that Hollywood and Stone alike are trying to create a biopic for someone who, for personal reasons regarding privacy and safety amongst more PR-related concerns, doesn’t seem to want one.
In an article recounting of Snowden’s creation in the Times Magazine, the primary source of drama comes from Snowden’s reticence to receive the Hollywood treatment let it undermine the credibility he is so desperate to retain (and frankly needs to retain for his legacy and continued activism to be taken seriously by his fans and critics alike.) Snowden’s input with the film is still generally a large question mark, despite his feel-good cameo. But according to both the Times story and other outlets, Snowden has not received a penny from Stone’s or Poitras’ films and more importantly, while he was the one who engaged Poitras to have her document his story, he still refuses to sell his life story or to be seen as making money off of his actions.
Nonetheless, Hollywood sees dollar signs in the Snowden story and Snowden beat a few other competing projects to be the first Snowden biopic you can go check out at your local multiplex. But does this mean you should? What this reviewer found most fascinating in revisiting Citizenfour for this piece alongside viewing Snowden is how in both stories, while Snowden served as the catalyst for the leak, they aren’t really about him as much as what he did and the effects of his actions. Of course, while Citizenfour presents a riveting, real-time character study, it’s difficult to really assess how much we acutally learn about Snowden over the film’s eight days of action. By the time you get to Snowden, having at least a feeling for who Snowden might really be, Stone’s liberal use of authorial interpretation ends up raising far more questions than it answers about just who Edward Snowden is and the reasons behind his radical actions. But Snowden aside, both do succeed in at least establishing that this is someone who in some way or another had to sacrifice himself and his own freedom just to alert the rest of the world to their lack of it.
At the end of the day, when considering Edward Snowden’s role within pop culture and what our representations of him say about us and this time we live in, one thing becomes upsettingly clear. Much like the NSA, whose origins and decades of inner workings still remain mostly a secret, so does Edward Snowden retain his riddle-wrapped-in-an-enigma status. He’s almost become a Rorschach test by which to gauge our deepest reservations about our government. And in Hollywood’s hands, as seen in Snowden, he’s a hero with a sense of inner-conflict, self-doubt, and insecurity pertaining to a monomaniacal responsibility to uphold his ethical code. Either way, in this post-Snowden era, where groups like The Shadow Brokers seemingly pervert his charitable drive to make classified information public by blackmailing governments for money, it seems that it is the media’s persistent inclination to try and reduce Edward Snowden and his legacy to an insidious character who is questionable at best. After all, if Snowden were a celebrity in the traditional sense, he would have scandals and skeletons in his closet that would in turn sell tabloids. But instead, like the NSA, Snowden remains almost impossible to pin down and to assign a definitive character to. And perhaps that’s what is the hallmark of the post-Snowden era: the idea that things aren’t simply black and white and that our government might not have our best intentions at heart is no longer speculative fiction but hard, cold fact. And either we can adapt to this and become spies in a defensive sense, remaining vigilant against any incursion into our privacy, or we can remain content to be spied on. What Snowden did was make us understand that we at least still have a choice, however remote it may be.