Watching Snowden, Oliver Stone’s two-and-some-hour biopic of the whistleblower, I kept returning to a story I once heard about Taylor Swift. Swift was chatting with a group of people at a party when Edward Snowden’s name came up. She hadn’t heard of him, so a friend started to explain to her that the government had been spying on millions of Americans. She was shocked. This would have taken place, if it did actually take place, two years after a twenty-nine-year-old Snowden leaked tens of thousands of classified NSA documents to journalist Glenn Greenwald, filmmaker Laura Poitras, and others at the Guardian and Washington Post.
Swift was not the only one to hear the news late. “When Oliver Stone asked me to do that part, I was excited, but then the next thought I had was, ‘Wait. Edward Snowden? I know I’ve heard that name, but which one is he and what exactly did he do?’” The actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Snowden, told the Hollywood Reporter in December.
Stone must have had viewers like Swift and Gordon-Levitt in mind, I thought, when in September 2016 he released a clumsy reboot of a story that had already been told through hundreds of domestic and foreign news articles, several books (including one by Greenwald himself), and Poitras’s Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour.
Snowden is a political film insofar as its sympathetic portrayal of the whistleblower coincided with the launch of a public campaign requesting President Obama pardon him. But as with so much of the mainstream discourse on surveillance, the film approaches the government’s abuses as an abstract debate. Stone has his characters tally the pros and cons of trading security for liberty—all the while ignoring the thousands of Americans subject to state monitoring long before Snowden’s revelations. His Hollywood retelling of the Snowden saga ends up depicting surveillance as little more than an inconvenience that might threaten our sex lives.
Stone’s rendition of the story for white liberal viewers is, of course, strategic. This is the same demographic of Americans Snowden himself sought to warn in 2013. “You don’t have to have done anything wrong,” Snowden explained in his first public appearance, arguing against the idea that privacy is for those with “something to hide.” “You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis, to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life.”
In that same speech, Snowden explained that it would only take one autocratic election for the government’s passive data collection to switch into a tool of active repression. It goes without saying that once Donald J. Trump ascends to the most powerful position in the world, he will no longer need his lawyers to send bullish letters to reporters and sexual assault survivors; instead, his small hands will hold the keys to every private confession, uncivil proposal, or impulsive call to arms recorded in recent history. That includes all your “Fuck Trump” texts, too.
Even if Snowden was made for Swift and the other 8 percent of Americans who, according to Pew, have yet to hear anything about the government’s surveillance programs, addressing the state’s future targets erases the plight of its current victims. But insofar as Stone’s errors exemplify what we fail to talk about when we talk about surveillance, they are instructive.
Oliver Stone has long been known for discursive biopics starring disillusioned patriots, and Snowden is no exception. Like many boomers, his opposition to the Vietnam War—in films like Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, and Nixon—gave way, in the aughts, to movies critiquing the invasion of Iraq and the War on Terror.
But while Snowden’s politics of self-reliant heroism are a relief from other pseudo-historical films like the CIA-approved Zero Dark Thirty or the jingoistic Argo, its slapdash form—part cyber thriller, part romance, with a quick detour to the military epic—renders it less effective as long-term propaganda. (“Stone will do a hatchet job on the movie, but it will still be the film of Snowden,” George Clooney anticipated in the leaked Sony emails.)
Stone cuts back and forth between Snowden’s past (enacted by the anodyne Gordon-Levitt) and footage already captured and disseminated by Citizenfour: the whistleblower’s meeting in a Hong Kong hotel, now featuring a younger, trimmer Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and a more haggard, aged Poitras (Melissa Leo). As the dramatic flashbacks exist only to foreshadow Snowden’s eventual decision to leak, the film drips with dramatic irony. Early on Snowden says he wants to serve his country by working for the CIA: viewers are supposed to chuckle, knowing full well how that turns out.
This cycle through the greatest hits of Snowden’s psychological formation begins with his time in the Army, where he walks on his foot after breaking it, and then flirts with his future girlfriend on a dating website. Discharged for medical reasons, the monogamous patriot soon finds another way to serve his country: through the CIA. Literally seconds later—everything in the film happens quickly—he’s in the agency’s cyber academy chatting with semi-retired defector Hank Forrester, who’s played by Nicholas Cage with his signature, aneurysmal verve.
It’s here that Snowden’s parallel sexual and intellectual awakening begins. Stone piles on heavy-handed actualizations of metaphors like “unveiling” the government’s secrets and “disrobing” state power—and for the rest of the film, they do not let up.
Forrester: What is your sin of choice?
Snowden: Uh? . . . Computers.
Forrester: Well Ed Snowden, you’ve come to the right whorehouse.
Indeed. Snowden is not just a good student but the best student. To the pulsing beat of dubstep, he finishes a multi-hour test to build covert infrastructure in just thirty-eight minutes. He then asks Corbin O’Brien (Rhys Ifans), his soon-to-be mentor and a scary guy who runs parts of the CIA, what he should work on next. “Whatever you want,” O’Brien smirks.
Thus established as a prodigy, Snowden meets up with his soulmate, Lindsay Mills (Shaleine Woodly). On their first date, she inexplicably takes close-up, semi-clandestine photographs of his face as they stroll through antiwar protests in Washington, D.C. She signs a Stop the Iraq War petition; he doesn’t. (“I don’t like bashing my government,” the young Ed explains.) Five minutes later, they kiss. And then date. Mills soon watches what she calls his “inner liberal” grow.
A conventional romance plot blooms alongside Snowden’s budding radicalization. And in Stone’s hands, the story takes on a biblical dimension: the whistleblower sleeps with a Democrat at the same time as he starts to feast on the state’s secrets. All this forbidden knowledge tempts and agitates. The passive technocrat blooms into a masculine revolutionary.
It’s in Geneva, Switzerland, where Snowden is stationed with the CIA, that he first learns about bulk data collection. A chill colleague at the NSA, Gabriel Sol (Ben Schnetzer), lures him into taking a look at some classified programs. Snowden demurs, explaining that he lacks authorized access, and Sol teases him, poking fun at his naïveté and calling him “Snow White.” The glaring subtext (subtlety is not one of Stone’s strengths) is that Snowden’s lack of experience violating others makes him an innocent, even virginal, figure.
It’s no accident that XKeyscore and Prism—the government’s keyword-based search program and massive repository of global communications, respectively—are introduced to Snowden (and to the film’s viewers) through an act of neocolonial voyeurism. Sol shows Snowden how to activate the computer camera of a female relative of a Pakistani banker whom they are trying to turn into an informant. Sitting behind a computer monitor, the two men watch the woman enter her apartment and undress. “I always wondered what was under those,” Snowden’s colleague jokes, after the woman removes her niqab. He explains to Snowden that the NSA can access “backdoors” into people’s electronic systems in real time. To which Snowden replies: “This is all going kind of fast, isn’t it?”
It is. Not long after, Snowden and his girlfriend have sex. But Snowden is turned off by the terrifying thought that his desktop computer’s camera might be capturing the action. Whereas he could once sleep with his girlfriend undisturbed, his awareness of the NSA’s infinitely branching tree of knowledge leads him to feel shameful and shy. He soon resigns.
Stone’s main artistic intervention—to frame state surveillance as a threat to individual privacy, epitomized as an invasion of sexual intimacy—is a familiar one. It’s the same tactic used as a benchmark for legal definitions of privacy. The modern state has long had an interest in what we do with our bodies, and the lines of privacy have often been drawn around the domestic sphere.
Stone is not wrong to tell an interviewer, regarding the webcam-sex-freak-out scene, “I don’t feel anything is private. And that includes your sex life.” Several news stories have even surfaced about law-enforcement agents stalking love interests (CIA agents call it LOVEINT). But in reducing privacy to sex, Stone fails to imagine the stakes of mass electronic surveillance as anything other than a lewd intrusion.
Sex may be the lowest common denominator in terms of everyone having “something to hide.” Yet Stone’s prurient emphasis does little to illustrate the material impact that surveillance already has on domestic and foreign journalists and activists, millions of incarcerated individuals, and communities of color. Far more chilling than instances of spies dampening love lives are the infiltration of Muslim organizations on college campuses; the targeting and execution of countless individuals by drone strikes; the monitoring of Black Lives Matter activists, water protectors, and other protesters; the DMV’s passive collection of facial images; the routine use of workplace-monitoring software; and an ever-expanding DHS watchlist.
“I am battling with my nervous system. It doesn’t let me rest or sleep. Eye twitches, clenched throat, and now literally waiting to be raided. I really need to prepare for that,” Laura Poitras wrote in her diary in February 2013, when she first started communicating with a source who called himself Citizenfour. She feared that Citizenfour, Snowden’s alias, was a government trap. Even if his story wasn’t too good to be true, there was the possibility that she would lack editorial support, that her source would go to prison, and that she might too. She wasn’t sure if a documentary would be the best format for breaking news. And if it wasn’t? Unlike Stone, Poitras wondered what her film could contribute to the conversation should his revelations prove immediately explosive.
At the time Citizenfour contacted her, Poitras was already shooting a film about state surveillance and resistance—an issue that took on personal dimensions after she was placed on a government watchlist. It became impossible to travel without being detained for several hours whenever she flew to or from the United States. Her bags were searched, along with her electronics. She attempted to take notes on these proceedings, but was eventually relieved of the ability to use a pen and paper.
These unwarranted searches began after Poitras trained her lens on what she called “the terror of the War on Terror” in her post–9/11 trilogy. In My Country, My Country (2006) she followed a Sunni physician and his family as he stood for elections in Iraq during the U.S. occupation. For 2010’s The Oath, filmed mostly in Yemen, she chronicled the lives of two brothers-in-law: Abu Jandal, a taxi driver and the former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, and Salim Ahmed Hamdan, bin Laden’s former driver, who had been detained as an enemy combatant at Guantanamo. Through these subtle, uneasy character studies, she captured the quiet destruction of civil liberties in the name of American interests abroad. (Citizenfour was the third installment.)
World Trade Center (2006), W. (2008), and Snowden (2016) constitute what one might describe as Stone’s own 9/11 trilogy—and while the latter two films likewise aim to respond to the hypocrisy of American interventionism, their goofy didacticism and soapy tones could not feel more antithetical to Poitras’s understated portraits.
Gone from Snowden is Citizenfour’s expansive context, the hearings of the Ninth Circuit Court, the patchwork Crypto Wars, and the hushed discussions about mass surveillance—the details of which, pre-Snowden, many suspected but few could prove. Gone, too, are Snowden’s long, full sentences. (They are replaced by Gordon-Levitt’s clipped sound bites.)
Snowden’s flashback structure drains Citizenfour of all its suspense. So little does Stone seem to have an eye for the high tension of cinema vérité that it probably would not have occurred to him to have the hotel room’s phone ring—a stressful but false alarm from housekeeping—if he hadn’t already seen it ring in Poitras’s film.
Throughout Poitras’s documentary, Snowden remains the expert who explains to journalists—and, in turn, to us—how the system really works. In Snowden, he’s a neophyte. It’s a less successful strategy—not because his moral journey lacks drama—but because Stone’s presentation makes it so unbearably didactic. There are a couple of classroom lectures, including one in which a professor draws a circle on a whiteboard to emphasize the word “FISA” (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act courts used post–9/11 to rubber-stamp government requests). An explanation of metadata—during which we learn that the NSA has the capability to track every cell phone in the world—occurs through a CGI illustration of the “six degrees of separation” test. Mobile phone networks burst through cyberspace like fireworks; the animated interlude ends with a supernova coalescing into a pupil. Surveillance is not a psychological phenomenon for Stone so much as it is a series of screens.
Stone understands privacy, and its privations, only in the most literal sense: the desire to hide indiscretions whose revelations would cause an individual embarrassment. But sensational violations, while dramatic, will not be what ultimately kills privacy. As Poitras shows, it’s the collections piling up—first your phone number, then your medical records, then your email, then the names of your friends—that gradually erode the intimate self. Poitras documents individual experiences of surveillance, including her own, so as to better prove how, in aggregate, they lay the conditions for social control. These accretive chilling effects are more difficult to represent (and legislate) than singular harms, but for the majority of Americans they pose a persistent, significant risk.
Take the precautionary solitude Poitras describes in her diary, which is total, suffocating. Alone, she hears the sound of blood coursing through her veins. “I am fighting, but they’ve gotten inside so that I don’t know if anyplace is private. If anyplace is safe. I’m trying to keep this new flat off the radar, so no phone, no connecting to the Internet without Tor,” she writes in March 2013. She starts to reread George Orwell’s 1984 and identifies strongly with its protagonist, who is unable to imagine, in a world of total surveillance, a future audience for his diary. “I’ve created my own isolation, so they win,” she writes. “They always win. I can fight all I want and I will lose. I will be destroyed, paranoid, forsaken, unable to sleep, think, love.”
Twenty-six days later she states: “It is increasingly hard to see how any of this has a positive ending.”
That Edward Snowden’s life has had as “positive” an ending as it has so far, given the circumstances, has largely been a matter of luck. It was not inevitable—then or now—that he would be able to live, albeit in Russia, without imprisonment. And while many support his whistleblowing actions, called a “public service” by former Attorney General Eric Holder, legislative oversight of domestic and foreign surveillance has lagged. Trump, meanwhile, has called for Ed’s head. Which is why Stone’s optimistic finale feels not just thoughtless but inadvisable.
Near the end of the film, Gordon-Levitt beams in through video chat from Russia to give an Oscar-aspirational speech in a U.S. auditorium. Partway through his speech, Levitt’s face is switched out with the actual Snowden’s. Is it a commentary on Snowden as a political actor? A joke? It’s not quite a cameo, since the substitution is as earnest and puzzling as the choice to cast Nicolas Cage in a self-serious film. The auditorium audience for which Gordon-Levitt was previously acting now gives the real Ed Snowden a standing ovation. Viewers, too, are meant to cheer.
In the closing scene, we travel with Stone to Russia, where the real Snowden wistfully smiles and delivers the line: “I no longer have to worry about what happens tomorrow, because I’m happy with what I’ve done today.” On this sober and cheerful note, a title card concludes the film by telling us that he gets the girl (his partner joins him in Russia), and news headlines are cited to highlight the limits placed on the government’s ability to collect domestic phone calls. No title card, however, mentions the fact that the violence of bulk surveillance continues apace. (Citizenfour, by contrast, concludes with a dystopic scene where Greenwald shows Snowden that the president tops the chain of command for targeted killings. Liberals who consoled themselves with this executive power being wielded by “a student of the writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas” are waking up to the nightmare that a student of Roy Cohn will soon control phones and drones.)
Snowden’s cameo in Snowden was a bug, not a feature. The U.S. government continues to destroy, intimidate, and imprison whistleblowers, sources, and increasingly, journalists. Chelsea Manning has already served six years of a thirty-five-year sentence—more time than anyone in U.S. history who has leaked documents in the public interest. It’s anything but a coincidence that the day before Stone’s film premiered, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence advised Obama not to pardon Snowden who, they cautioned, was “not a patriot.” In November, pundits started to wonder whether Putin might send the patriot over to Trump Tower as a conciliatory gift. It has once again become difficult to see how any of this will have a positive ending.
Ava Kofman is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn.