The film’s glorification of the whistleblower subsumes the message
by MATTHEW GAULT
In the months after 9/11, I had a friend who loved to scoop up whatever suspicious and shady information on the Internet he could find — strange manifestos from foreign terrorist groups, The Anarchist Cookbook and U.S. military training manuals — and store it all on un-networked hard drives
He asked me if I wanted copies of everything and I waved him off. “I can always just download it,” I said and he looked at me as if I were crazy.
“You can’t do that anymore,” he explained.
“Why? It’s all still there,” I said.
“Dude,” he said. “Have you read the Patriot Act?”
And, of course, I hadn’t. Few had. My friend did. He’d read the massive bill and understood what was coming. He gave me the cliff notes version — FISA courts, mass surveillance and the degrading of civil liberties.
So when a contractor walked out of an NSA facility with thousands of files detailing the lengths to which U.S. security agencies were spying on both the world and the American public, it wasn’t a shock. A lot of people I knew had been sounding the alarm for years … the only thing that changed was that the world now had proof.
I care about mass surveillance and do not like it. That the U.S. government twisted the law to justify mass spying is one of the most serious perversions of civil liberties in the United States’ recent history. America has a responsibility to defend its citizens from terrorism, but I’ve never believed it must become a monster to fight a monster.
I care about civil liberties and privacy. I want to know about XKeyScore, PRISM and the dirty world of signals intelligence. What I don’t care about, and am increasingly annoyed by, is the man who revealed the information to the world — Edward Snowden.
Snowden is the latest batch of treacle from filmmaker Oliver Stone. It’s a dramatization of the life of the famed leaker and does its best to portray him a human and a patriot. Stone wants us to see Snowden as driven by principle — someone who tried to right a wrong.
But the problem with Snowden is the same problem with so much of the coverage of the real Snowden— it focuses on the person and forces the information he revealed to play second fiddle. But then, this is an Oliver Stone film so I’m not surprised.
Stone often focuses on the people behind great deeds and fantastical acts rather than the deeds and acts themselves. More dubiously, Stone has long felt the need to insert himself into the work, embellish the events and insist his fictions are facts. Pull up his 2012 documentary Untold History of the United States, count the factual errors and marvel at his bitter desire to be cinema’s Howard Zinn, who was far more meticulously researched.
So yeah. Snowden is terrible.
But mainly, the film is boring and primarily concerns itself with making Snowden sympathetic. This is partly because the complicated and tech-heavy nature of Snowden’s revelations has long plagued telling the story for a mass audience.
Stone does his best to make searching a Facebook profile using XKeyScore thrilling, but no amount of fancy graphical rendering can make a teenage girl’s social media friendships anything other than banal.
Instead, Stone spends the bulk of Snowden following the man around as other characters mug lines such as “You don’t have to agree with your politicians to be a patriot,” while doing their best not to stare directly at the camera and wink at the audience.
Shailene Woodley does a fine job portraying Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills, never elevating the performance beyond what’s written in the mediocre screenplay. She takes pictures, battles Snowden on his conservative outlook and serves as a foil for the stoic and reserved whistleblower.
Joseph Gordon Levitt, by contrast, is excellent as Snowden. His performance, craft and dedication is top notch. The actor nails Snowden’s frog-in-throat baritone and geeky charm.
Too bad director Stone doesn’t let Levitt finish out the film. In the closing moments, a recreation of one of Snowden’s remote lectures by robot, the camera spins and actor Levitt becomes subject Snowden. The real one.
That’s right, Stone draws back the curtain in the final moments of the film and lets the literal subject of the bio-pic deliver the closing monologue. The camera circles him, looking up at him as if he were a savior while soft light plays across his face. It’s almost as nauseating as those Wired covers where Snowden cradles the American flag.
And so it was that I no longer believed Snowden’s insistence that it’s not about him.
It's not about me. It's about whether you'd rather know the truth. http://t.co/T1X5ddHlWM
Laura Poitras’ Oscar winning documentary Citizenfour brought the world to the Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden first told his story. She made me feel for him, and made me believe he wanted truth rather than attention.
Almost every decision he’s made since has undermined that. At this rate, in 20 years Snowden’s face will adorn T-shirts worn by teens long after the destruction of privacy American civil liberties will have become a largely-ignored fact of daily life.
The symbol will subsume the meaning.
Some of that will be Snowden’s fault for deciding to come forward and turn himself into a symbol.
Some of that will be Stone’s fault for deifying the messenger over the message. Some of it will be the audience’s fault for focusing on the finger when it points at the moon.