There’s a little remembered 1972 thriller called The Groundstar Conspiracy with George Peppard. He’s a no-nonsense government special-agent called Tuxan who possesses a keen interest in eavesdropping. At one point the character states that the only way for true national security and for the protection of all Americans is to eventually have the government place a camera in every house, presumably to protect the lives of the very people he’s spying upon. It sounded horrifying in ‘72, but now with desk top computers, laptops and cell phones voluntarily brought in to almost every home (and that includes Xbox Live and World of Warcraft players), Tuxan’s dream is finally achieved, and on a scale he could never have imagined. We didn’t know it but as former CIA employee and whistle-blower Edward Snowden revealed to The Guardian newspaper, the government eavesdropping and surveillance program where our own equipment was used against us has happened.
In Oliver Stones’s new biographical political thriller Snowden, there’s a character called Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans, abandoning his Welsh accent for a pitch-perfect American). He’s initially an overseer to the young, computer professional. Other than the addition of the occasional obsequious smile, O’Brian is someone not unlike Peppard’s Tuxan. “Most Americans don’t want freedom,” he explains to an already disenchanted Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), “They want security.” The idea might be sound if it was restricted to the surveillance of perceived enemies, but as Snowden discovers, the government was also regularly spying on friends such as Britain, France, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, Spain and more, with particular interest in ally German Chancellor Angela Merkel, not to mention the ability to easily turn its attention to ordinary American citizens anywhere at anytime. “Everyday of your life you’re sitting in a database, ready to be looked at,” Snowden explains, later accurately describing the process as, “… A dragnet on the whole world.”
With this shocking information in mind, are we really being paranoid when putting a piece of sticky tape across the camera lens of our laptop or Skype camera? Probably not. Call it being aware, or even educated. After all, the computer doesn’t have to be on in order for hackers, government or otherwise, to do their work. And while you’re at it, put tape across the mic to muffle the sound, then ponder the following. Imagine something like a Google search engine that not only searches key words on public websites but just as easily breaks through the barriers and complicated passwords of private websites, e-mails, texts and any other form of on-line messaging you can think of, all done with a simple press of the Enter key. It exists. It’s called Xkeyscore, a secret system used by the National Security Agency (NSA), though because of Snowden’s revelations, it’s a secret no longer. “Either I’m wrong,” Snowden tells defense and intelligence correspondent Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson with a soft, Scottish accent), “Or there’s something going on in the government that’s really wrong.”
There are two sides to every argument, and often if you step away from your own conclusions and try to see an issue from an opposing point of view, both sides can be right. If you have an unquestioning sense of patriotism, then the story of Edward Snowden leaking classified information would have you calling him traitor. That’s understandable, particularly if the leaks put the lives of covert operatives at risk. But the film presents the story from the other angle.
Told in a series of lengthy flashbacks as Snowden secretly relates his story from a Hong Kong hotel room to Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and recorded on camera by documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), we witness his early life in the Army Reserve, his discharge because of shattered bones – “There are other ways to serve your country,” the Army doctor tells him – his personal sense of patriotism and his time as a CIA analyst. He’s humorless; a straight arrow with conservative beliefs, the kind who wants everyone to play by the rules with a keen sense of fairness to all. But it’s his exposure to the systems of surveillance that by-pass American laws that disturbs, and it gets to a point where he can’t take it anymore. When O’Brian senses that Snowden is not altogether happy, the government agent tells Snowden that the young man’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley who successfully runs the gamut of emotions) is not sleeping with that friendly camera guy, just in case he was worried. It’s meant as a personal moment of assurance, but it only underlines the length to which the NSA has the ability, without exception, to look into everyone’s personal, private life.
Unlike Stone’s JFK, and to a degree, Nixon, Snowden tends to be less flashier with it’s editing and graphics. The inclusion of the real Edward Snowden playing himself in the final moments is not altogether successful (by delivering scripted lines, the appearance momentarily breaks the illusion that everything we’ve seen before it was real) but by carefully and soberly – by Stone’s standards – laying out the events that lead to Snowden’s revelations – shot with well-framed, widescreen clarity by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle – the director is doing whatever he can not to appear one-sided or a propagandist in support of what others may consider an enemy whistle-blower. The information within the film is true – with a few clicks of your own there’s nothing you can’t confirm, including Xkeyscore – but Snowden is also a political thriller made principally for entertainment. Like most films that state it’s all based on true events, not everything we see can be as it happened.
When Snowden (a moment of adjustment required with Gordon-Levitt’s accent, then it’s fine) is downloading the damaging information to a card, we get one of those last second, nail-biting, will-he-or-won’t-he be discovered by other government agents as the percentage bar scrolls across the screen, then he clumsily drops the tiny card on the carpet and panics in case those who have just entered the room will look down and see it. When O’Brian communicates privately with Snowden on a huge TV monitor and his face leans into the camera, his oversized appearance becomes so comically threatening, it makes the man even more of a villain than he already seemed. These moments are all cinematic. They add to movie-making tension, though whether they ever actually happened in the way presented is doubtful. Still, the embellishments spoil nothing. After all, real life stories, even one as fascinating as this, don’t always render themselves to big screen movies when presented exactly as things occurred. With some cinematic tweaking, some creative tension building and the condensing of certain events, Snowden is finally a return to form for Stone. For all of its 138 minutes, you should be engrossed.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 138 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)