Snowden

September 22, 2016
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 'Snowden' (2016)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 'Snowden' (2016)

Snowden belongs to a peculiar new genre: the fictionalised re-make of the successful documentary – in this case, Laura Poitras’s award-winning Citizenfour (2014). The question for viewers is whether director, Oliver Stone, has brought anything new and vital to the mix that was not canvassed in the real-life film.

The answer is ‘no’, unless we consider a dash of melodramatic music, a whiff of Le Carre-type espionage, and some plodding dialogue, to be useful additions to the Snowden story – and this seems to be true of all dramatisations that follow a documentary. Stephen Frears’s The Program (2015) added nothing to the saga of Lance Armstrong that had not been covered in Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie (2013). James Marsh’s portrait of high-rise artiste, Philippe Petit, in Man on a Wire (2008), was vastly superior to Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk (2015).

Edward Snowden may be a man of the highest principles – a genuine American hero to many people – but he is no Hollywood superstar. In this bio pic he comes across as reserved, conservative, a bit puritanical. Even by the standards of computer nerds he is hardly the life of the party. This presents a problem for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who has to bring some emotional force to a character who is introverted by nature, and doubly constrained by the secrecy provisions of his job. At least Gordon-Levitt doesn’t have to speak with a French accent, as he did in The Walk.

The love interest comes from Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, who tries to bring him out of his shell, with only partial success. Shailene Woodley gives a wholehearted performance, perhaps feeling relieved that she’s finally out of that dreadful series of young adult sci fi flicks that commenced with Divergent (2014).

Stone obviously believes Snowden’s story is of the greatest relevance to a world in which the communications revolution has opened the door to unprecedented forms of social control. It’s an era when governments invoke threats to national security to justify eavesdropping on millions of their own citizens.

We watch Snowden’s gradual transformation from a patriotic defender of American values and staunch Republican, to the supreme whistleblower of all time.

In this film his conscience is pricked by the way the government uses intelligence to put pressure on vulnerable sources, and to frame targets for drone strikes that kill the innocent as well as the guilty. He is an idealist working for the CIA, an organisation devoted to the doctrine that the ends always justify the means.

Snowden is disturbed to find the programs he has helped devise are being used to gather information on millions of people who are neither criminals nor terrorists. The final straw is when he realises that he and Lindsay are also under surveillance. He has glimpsed a completely paranoid world in which one’s every move and utterance may be monitored by unseen forces.

Snowden feels the National Security Agency has become drunk with its own power and careless of legal restraints. As power proverbially has a corrupting influence, he can see only the most sinister implications in the unchecked spread of data collection. This is why he decides to pass on top secret documents to the media, even at the cost of his own life and liberty.

The great miracle is Snowden’s escape from his American pursuers when he leaves Hong Kong for Russia. Stone does his best to make this suspenseful, but alas, there are no high-speed car chases, no shoot-outs, no dangling by finger tips from skyscrapers. He simply slips away.

As entertainment Snowden is a dull night at the movies. For Stone, the significance of the film probably lies in its ability to reach a mass audience that might never have seen Poitras’s documentary or followed the story on the nightly news. It paints a sympathetic picture of a figure who has been villified as a traitor by mainstream politicians, and alerts us to the way our own freedoms are being eroded by covert, un-democratic processes brought in by elected governments.

The big question is: “Does anybody really care?” As of October last year, the Australian government has been collecting your metadata, at a cost estimated by Tony Abbott, of more than $400 million. A few months beforehand, US courts had ruled that the NSA’s bulk metadata collection program was illegal, but this did not deter Australian politicians. Neither did they feel the issue was worthy of a plebiscite, even though opinion polls suggested that a majority of Australians were opposed to the policy, in contrast to same-sex marriage which has majority support.

The data collection policy was first mooted by the Gillard government in 2012, and drew a sharp rebuke from Opposition spokesman, Malcolm Turnbull, who said: “It seems to be heading in precisely the wrong direction.” Nowadays Mr. Turnbull is presiding over the same program whose costs and security benefits he once denounced. He can do so with impunity because we inhabit a great desert of public complacency when it comes to our rights and freedoms. It seems unlikely that Snowden, for all its good intentions, will get people marching in the streets.

Snowden
Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Kieran Fitzgerald & Oliver Stone, after a book by Anatoly Kucherena & Luke Harding
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Tom Wilkinson
France/Germany/USA, rated M, 134 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 24th September, 2016.