Snowden opens in June 2013, as journalists Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo: London Has Fallen, The Big Short) and Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto: Star Trek Beyond, Hitman: Agent 47) first meet and interview, over several days, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt: The Night Before, The Walk), in a hotel in Hong Kong. My first thought upon my second viewing this weekend of Oliver Stone’s (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, W.) gripping docudrama about these shocking real-life events is this: Has it really been only four years? It feels like forever ago, and from a different world. I wonder if maybe it’s even too soon for Stone — or anyone — to have attempted to tell this story, since it’s not over yet: Snowden remains in exile in Russia, and god only knows what the state of mass surveillance is these days. But this is nevertheless a really good précis of what Snowden did, what he learned as an employee and contractor at the CIA and NSA, how that was released to the public, and why it matters.
If you don’t already think, as I do, that Snowden is a hero for revealing the astonishing level of snooping to which the US and UK governments had been subjecting innocent people all over the world — including their own citizens — perhaps Snowden will convince you. Gordon-Levitt takes Snowden from gung-ho patriot with politically conservative leanings who only wants to serve his country to horrified patriot shifting into progressive liberal outrage: you might feel the same as we follow along his learning curve about the appalling overreaches and clear unconstitutionality of what the NSA and the CIA were up to, and the uses to which the massive amounts of info they were sucking up were being put. The “bulk collection” of data and the espionage equivalent of Google that allowed the agencies to search everything you think is private — like Skype calls and private Facebook messages — “is not about terrorism,” Snowden tells Poitras. “Terrorism is the excuse. This is about economic and social control,” in ways that include undermining the essential infrastructure, physical and cultural, of even friendly nations. It’s horrifying stuff. One scene in which another CIA geek (Ben Schnetzer: Warcraft: The Beginning, The Riot Club) shows Snowden how he can turn on the webcam of any laptop anywhere in order to voyeuristically spy on someone — without any due process, without even any suspicion, never mind a warrant — is absolutely chilling. It leads to one of the least gratuitous sex scenes in the history of cinema, in which Snowden, while making love with his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley: Allegiant, The Fault in Our Stars), suddenly realizes that his laptop is open across the room, and that anyone could be watching.
Oh, there’s a devil’s advocate perspective offered by Snowden’s instructor at the CIA (Rhys Ifans: Alice Through the Looking Glass, Madame Bovary), who insists that secrecy is security, and that the battlefield is everywhere these days and so, I guess, we’re all legitimate targets, or something. (Though even he admits that Islamic terrorism is a temporary distraction, and that the real concern is the coming war(s) with North Korea or Iraq or Russia or all of them, and that that will be fought electronically.) If you want to buy all this, and you’ll willing to trade all semblance of privacy for no guarantee of safety, Snowden throws you that bone. But this character, a composite creation of the screenplay by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, is called O’Brian, specifically after Winston Smith’s personal villain in 1984. And that’s not at all a stretch. Is that the side you want to be on?
Snowden is highly entertaining in the usual way, with great performances by the whole cast — which also includes Tom Wilkinson (Denial, Selma) as Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill, who joined them in that hotel room, and in a small but essential role, Nicolas Cage (The Frozen Ground, Joe) as a composite CIA analyst called Hank Forrester, who is clearly meant to be Bill Binney, the subject of the hugely informative documentary A Good American, the topic matter of which — an analysis program that would have prevented 9/11 — is alluded to here. It’s sorta cool to see, too, a kind of making-of of Poitras’s Citizenfour, her documentary on Snowden that resulted from the hotel interviews. But Snowden is also entertaining in a way is quickly becomes deeply unsettling: all the cloak-and-dagger and techno-paranoia here, usually the stuff of fictional thrillers, is authentic and affects all of us. When Snowden, in the hotel room where Poitras and Greenwald conduct their interviews, insists that everyone put their cell phones into the microwave he bought for this purpose, to thwart any eavesdropping à la the remote-activation-webcam horror, that is science fiction turned into dreadful everyday reality. (He doesn’t turn the microwave on, of course. But a microwave is a kind of Faraday cage, a device that blocks electromagnetic signals, which is something it usually only needs to do from the inside, to keep from cooking you while you watch your popcorn pop.)
Of course Snowden is geared toward showing off its subject in a good light. So maybe Stone invented the bit in which Snowden explains why it took years for him to finally blow the whistle, that he “thought the system would self-correct.” The obvious but unspoken follow-on from that is that, in fact, the system did self-correct. Snowden himself was the self-correction. He — and this film — represent a tiny bit of hope in a world that seems to have gone even more insane in the intervening years. There’s always someone who gets pushed too far, who can no longer turn a blind eye to injustices and unfairnesses and outright crimes. Such people, who end up risking so much and often losing so much, as Snowden did and has, deserve to be recognized for their sacrifices on our behalf. Snowden does an excellent job on the-story-so-far.