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'Snowden' Isn't Really About Snowden

It's about your nude pics. On this episode of Radio Motherboard, we think about Oliver Stone's film and hear from Stone and Snowden's lawyer.
Image: Open Road Films

In Citizenfour, her Oscar-winning documentary from 2014, Laura Poitras chronicled the tense, high-stakes first encounter in a Hong Kong hotel room between an NSA whistleblower and journalists trying to expose wrongdoing. In Snowden, Oliver Stone's own deluxe telling of the story, these crucial scenes from the documentary become the backbone of a larger story about how Snowden got there to begin with. Inadvertently, this may produce an uncanny effect: watching actors on film playing out real-life scenes that had already appeared on film, scenes that, though very real, already felt like they could have been written for a Hollywood thriller.


This weird zone, somewhere between fiction and a reality that's stranger than fiction, represents the broad challenge of dramatizing Snowden's story for mass audiences. No matter how gripping and well-shot or -acted the story may be, it won't mean much if you can't communicate the real stakes, motives, and realities that are driving it forward. Why did Snowden choose to risk it all? But Stone can't answer that question convincingly without first turning some unwieldy and amorphous subject matter--internet surveillance and privacy--into something tangible and serious, something that even a jaded or skeptical audience might want to care about too.

"The truth is, I was worried the whole time that this thing was going to turn into a bore," Stone said at a preview screening at the Brooklyn Public Library, alongside Snowden's laywer, the ACLU's Ben Wizner. "How do you make this movie move?"

Listen: On Radio Motherboard, Jason Koebler and Alex Pasternack discuss Snowden, with cameos by Oliver Stone and Snowden's lawyer Ben Wizner:

This week's episode of Radio Motherboard. Get more on iTunes.

Stone, who directed and co-wrote the movie, is like a hacker, in that sense, trying to figure out how to Trojan horse the real Snowden story into a story that looks a lot like the Snowden story—just more fast-paced, fun to look at, and perhaps easier to grasp. Like most hacks, of course, not everything in this version is to be taken at face value. There are, for instance, missing pieces and inventions, like the character that Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Snowden encounters in a CIA basement who is played by Nicolas Cage, and is meant to stand in for the real-life government whistleblowers who proceeded him, like Bill Binney, J. Kirk Wiebe, and Thomas Drake. (Chelsea Manning is curiously not mentioned once in the movie; Wikileaks is mentioned one time, in a voice-over during Snowden's escape from Hong Kong.)


As for the more controversial details about what he did, Stone said that Snowden, whom he met three times in Moscow to hear his story, never revealed exactly how he smuggled data out of the NSA or how exactly he left Hong Kong. "He's still under indictment" under the Espionage Act, Stone pointed out. "Ed would say, 'I can't discuss this. We have to find a parallel way of getting there.'" (In the movie, for instance, the whistleblower quickly downloads files onto a memory card that he tucks into a Rubix Cube; in real life, according to the NSA, Snowden took documents over months, using some of his colleagues' passwords, and a USB drive. Snowden has called the NSA's account "simply wrong.")

"There are two deep truths at the center of this story and the center of this movie," Wizner said. One of them is about a person who revealed wrongdoing "with sincerity, courage, conviction, patriotism, love of country, and I think that's… accurately depicted." Conveying that truth is presumably what motivated everyone involved—not least Snowden and his supporters, who last week began advocating in earnest for a Presidential pardon.

Stone doesn't attempt to make any argument to the contrary. Snowden the movie character is a heroic, nearly hagiographic cartoon of the real Snowden, the one we can only intimate from Citizenfour. Not everyone will come away from Snowden with the same conviction about Snowden's character and integrity. "I'd love to see what [former NSA chief] Michael Hayden has to say," Stone chuckled nervously.


A story about how the internet works now

But the argument for Snowden's pardon isn't just about Snowden, of course, and the movie isn't either: it's about what Wizner called the other deep "truth" in the movie, about the ethical motivation for his actions, which even Obama's former attorney general has acknowledged were a "public service." In a broad sense, "Snowden" is, like two recent documentaries, Alex Gibney's Zero Days or Herzog's Lo And Behold, a story about how the internet works. It's about what happens when technical capabilities (ie, hacking) help humans overstep serious boundaries (ethics, laws, human freedoms); about a set of programs that have invited countless hidden abuses, now and in the future; a costly system that many have complained has meant outsized benefits to private industry and that in some cases has been ineffective at stopping the terrorism it's trying to prevent.

At the screening, Stone and Wizner pointed out another crucial meta-problem with all of this: that Snowden was able to walk out with so much data demonstrates a serious flaw at the heart of such a gargantuan and risky enterprise: a variation on, if you have all the data you could lose all the data.

"They still have no idea how many documents were taken or provided to journalists," said Wizner, "which makes you wonder, how many people may have walked out the door not to meet with the Guardian or the Washington Post?" Added Stone, "they have the ability to make mistakes because no one's watching their back."


The details of this story are not contested. The systems that Snowden revealed have come under legal scrutiny and the start of political reform. But the future of reform isn't clear. Apart from the story of Snowden the man—a story Snowden himself worried would detract from the bigger issues—the broader issues of privacy, surveillance, and freedom seem to have faded into the background of popular discussion, and played virtually no role in the current Presidential campaigns. (For a thermometer of Americans' current attitude about privacy, see Pew's recent report.)

Stone works hard at making these issues concrete again. There are eye opening depictions of software like XKEYSCORE and systems like PRISM, which are illustrated in one eye-popping four minute computer-animated sequence showing how the entire internet gets scooped up in the government's database. But Snowden's paranoia (and ours) gets really nudged up a notch by an argument far more personal, and far less abstract, than that usually heard: his girlfriend Lindsey's extroverted use of social media, and the realization that her computer and webcam may well be pwned by hackers, foreign or domestic. Snowden grows alarmed, and at his most vulnerable moment no less: he spots Lindsey's laptop open on the desk, facing them while they're having sex.

It's the Snowden version of John Oliver's "dick pic" question: would you want the government to have a photo of your private parts? (Too late, really, but that depends upon legalistic definition of "have" or "collect.") Snowden tapes up the webcam with a Band-Aid and castigates Lindsey for keeping her nude photos on her hard drive. ("I have nothing to hide," she tells him, echoing a majority sentiment, at least one more of us used to have in the pre-Snowden days.) And so Stone's rapid-fire version of Snowden's conversion kicks into high gear, as he moves from government contractor to skeptic to protester, a path that takes him from Geneva to Tokyo to Oahu to Hong Kong and on to Moscow.


Stone filmed in these places, adding yet more sumptuous realism to a movie that again is also definitely not a documentary. The documentary, Citizenfour, did a fantastic job of telling this shocking story, and showed how, compared with Stone's information-dense, fast-paced treatment, less is actually more. Armed with Snowden's suggestions and revelations from the documents and poetic license, Stone goes in the maximalist direction. To show the threat of spying and convey Snowden's personal motivations, the movie gets imaginative at times, and depicts one of Snowden's bosses as an Orwellian character: he's named O'Brian (a nod to O'Brien, the sinister government official in 1984) and his last communication with Snowden is via his head projected on a giant screen, hinting that he has been spying upon Snowden's girlfriend.

If it feels outlandishly creepy, that's part of Stone's point: this could happen, technically speaking (and people at the NSA have reportedly spied on some of their most intimate relations). But in telling Snowden's story—a complicated and controversial one, ultimately about a far more complicated and controversial government program—the outlandishness is also a liability. On a larger social level, the success of Snowden, like that of a lot of the reporting that came out of his leaks, won't depend so much upon how fun the story is or how heroic its protagonist looks. It's social impact will depend upon how well it can communicate the real life effect of something as outlandish-sounding, something as creepy, as your own government spying on you.

Even if Stone's semi-fictionalized two hours can't settle specific questions about Snowden the man and how he did what he did, "Snowden" paints a broad argument as to the why. The movie isn't completely accurate but it's generally true. And it will, hopefully, send audiences home with thoughts and questions about larger issues than Edward Snowden himself: about the scope of surveillance and data collection, the idea that loving one's country and criticizing it aren't contradictory but complementary, and importance of privacy, what the real life Snowden calls "the fountainhead of all of our rights." President Obama may not see the movie, and if he did, it probably wouldn't clead him to pardon Snowden. But it would likely convince him to finally tape up that webcam.

But webcam defenses or not, we all could probably use more stories--both of the journalistic kind and the pop culture, Oliver Stone kind--that illustrate the personal value of privacy, and provide more suggestions on how to preserve it. And given the rate at which Edward Snowden is ascending from news story and historical figure into a mainstream, pop-cultural political phenomenon, how long could it be, as Jason suggests in this week's Radio Motherboard, before we get a full-on Broadway rap musical sensation treatment--a Snowden! perhaps?

Listen to a conversation with Laura Poitras, director of Citizenfour, and subscribe to Radio Motherboard on iTunes and through all podcast apps.