Snowden: The Film Nobody Needed

By Theo McCauley

In January of 2013, the critical American documentarian, Laura Poitras, was contacted for the first time by a contracting NSA computer specialist, Edward Snowden. In this moment, Edward Snowden’s now infamous name was virtually void of intrigue to the average American citizen, but with less than a year’s time, this would change drastically. Four months after Snowden contacted Laura Poitras for the first time; he would meet secretly in a Hong Kong hotel with the exposé documentarian and political writers Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill from The Guardian. The purpose of the meeting was to disclose proof of confidential global surveillance programs used by the National Security Agency with the cooperation of telecommunication companies.

The Hong Kong interviews with Snowden were filmed over eight days, interpreted, and released at the New York Film festival on October 10, 2014 as the documentary, Citizenfour. The film went on to receive numerous accolades including the 2015 Academy Award for Best Documentary. Today, Edward Snowden is considered widely and equally as a hero, whistleblower, dissident, traitor, and patriot.

On February 16th, 2015 — just six days before Citizenfour won the Oscar for Best Documentary, filming began on a semi-fictional bio-picture called Snowden in Munich, Germany. The film was directed by Oliver Stone and starred Joseph Gordon Levitt as the title character. Stone has said that he opted to film in Munich because he feared interference by the NSA, he additionally ensured that the entirety of the cast and crew communicated using only a secure file sharing program.

The film, though inspired by extraordinary true events, was a disorganized mess and over-embellished valorization of the whistleblower in question. A solid majority of the film was a direct visual quote of exact scenes from Citizenfour. Scenes inside the Hong Kong hotel room where given an aesthetic makeover, but almost failed to be intentionally identical to the exact scenes captured by Laura Poitras two years earlier. These scenes worked well in Citizenfour chiefly for their lightning-in-a-bottle rarity. Informants typically come forward with good intentions, but enough self-preserving-sense to protect their identity. Watching the original film, I was reminded immediately of the informant “Deep Throat” disclosing top-secret dirt involving Nixon’s Watergate Scandal in the film All the President’s Men. In Alan J. Pakula’s interpretation of this now infamous disclosure, “Deep Throat” was protected by a cliched trench coat/hat combo, an empty parking garage, and an over-the-top pseudonym.

Edward Snowden was an informant of infinitely higher caliber and risk. The precautions he took to arrange the interview reflect this fact: he contacted the journalists through encrypted servers, insisted that they meet him in a densely overpopulated country outside of U.S surveillance, and prepared to flee his home country wildly after disclosing his information. However when the camera finally turned on, he was just a stage frightened man with delicate secrets way over his clearance level. He was pale, nerdy, and scared. He used his real name, insisted on full disclosure, and admitted that he had no idea what to do with these gigantic secrets other than reveal them for public consumption.

In Stone’s interpretation of events, Edward Snowden was played by Hollywood heartthrob Joseph Gordon Levitt and the whole mission was accomplished using a Jimmy Neutron inspired Rubik’s Cube. The film was successful in creating a fuller picture of Edward Snowden as a developed character, rather than as the face of a controversy. His story begins during his military days as a staunch conservative who would blindly follow his country through thick and thin, and from there tracks his dissent into treason as he is disheartened more and more by the inner working of the U.S. Government. This is a prototypical distinction of Stone’s filmmaking — acquiring ultimate victory through disdain for government.

Stone’s hagiography of Edward Snowden is so heavy handed in this film that any information disclosed about his past must be cautiously picked through. This is the information risk with most bio-pictures, whether the focus is Alan Turing or Ray Charles. These films will take creative liberties to turn the central character into a hero worth rooting for, and by this virtue it is more enjoyable for audiences. However in this case, Stone’s film as a constructed art suffers almost triply for its embellishments because it’s entire target audience is privy to a truer story (an empirically more gripping truer story) that thereby cheapens any creative liberties taken to valorize Snowden at the expense of quality.

Stone’s flop is certainly disappointing, but those looking for a crash course in, “who is Edward Snowden?” can easily learn the root of the controversy by watching it’s much better parent film, Citizenfour.