In Oliver Stone’s new biopic thriller, “Snowden”, we see the humanization of a young 20-something US software engineer who is self-taught and brilliant in his deciphering the surveillance agenda of the CIA and the NSA in 2013. In what is now the most well-known disclosure of US intelligence and surveillance practices, Snowden has opened a window to how counterintelligence is carried out in the global arena.
“Snowden” opens with the naïve yet idealistic twenty-one year old going through Army bootcamp. Injured, Snowden is discharged, obtains his GED and a master’s degree online and then employed as a consultant for government contracts dealing with terrorism. Snowden (played in a subtle interpretation by Joseph Gordon Leavitt,) develops “Epic Shelter” for backing up multiple databases at the secret NSA underground facility in Hawaii. Accidentally he discovers that Epic Shelter is being misused for cyberspying on US citizens, and intercepting corporate data belonging to Google, Yahoo and other companies as well as foreign governments. Outraged, Snowden is portrayed as an American patriot who has lost faith in his country. Concerned for his girlfriend’s safety, Snowden resigns from NSA and reveals thousands of classified documents to journalists at the Guardian (UK), Washington Post and Laura Poitras, an independent filmmaker (for what would become the 2015 Academy Award-winning documentary “Citizenfour”. See my review, “Citizenfour”—“Big Brother’s Doppelganger”, March 24, 2015).
On June 21, 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice charged Snowden with two counts of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and theft of government property. Two days later Snowden flies to Moscow hoping to seek asylum elsewhere but resigned to secret residency in Moscow after other nations refuse to offer a safe haven. For now, he is still living in an undisclosed location in Russia while seeking asylum elsewhere.
Snowden has been called a hero, a whistleblower, a dissident, a patriot and a traitor. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for the last three years. His disclosures have fueled debates over government surveillance, and the balance between homeland security and citizens’ privacy. President Obama refused to grant him a pardon, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak called Snowden a hero, Secretary of State John Kerry called him a traitor, and Donald Trump called for his execution.
Oliver Stone has never been intimidated by politically charged stories (“Platoon”, “Born on the Fourth of July”, “Wall Street” and “JFK” to name a few) and this is no exception. No matter what you think of Snowden’s disclosure of classified documents, this epic story of why he did it and how he pulled it off makes for a compelling and exciting film. It should be seen along with “Citizenfour” which provides less of the idiosyncrasies of Snowden’s personality and more of his software genius as well as the motivation for his disclosures to Poitras, in particular. Oliver Stone recaptured some “Citizenfour” scenes almost in identical detail. This is a must-see for 2016!