“Snowden”: Love, life and privacy in the time of surveillance

Oliver Stone’s excellent new film “Snowden” is a primer on life in the digital age – the perils to privacy, professionalism and the personal. Through an extended series of flashbacks in the life of whistleblower Edward Snowden, Stone shows us the impacts of global surveillance on relationships from international to interpersonal.

Stone’s dramatization builds around and out from Laura Poitras Academy Award winning documentary “Citizenfour.” We meet Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in the prison like confines of his Hong Kong hotel room, a refugee of conscience, blowing the whistle on his U.S. spy agency employers.

Through a series of flashbacks, Snowden emerges a brilliant, geeky, well considered patriot from a military family. He is moved by the events of 9/11 to volunteer for Special Forces training. After breaking both legs, Snowden is forced off the active front lines into intelligence service. He eagerly joins CIA global communications at their headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

Snowden excelled in computer science. But with greater success came more responsibility and direct involvement in CIA covert operations. Coordinating cyber security in Geneva, Snowden becomes enmeshed in a plot to use illegally harvested data to blackmail an international banker. Straight arrow Snowden’s morals were not as flexible as his fellow CIA operatives. He begins to become disenchanted with intelligence misused and reaches out to register concern, particularly over the illegal intrusion into virtually every electronic communication both domestic and international.

He is not as good at communicating with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). Snowden instead opts to protect her from surveillance, though the relationship suffers from his not being able to share the secret nature of his work. He becomes progressively disillusioned. Through moves through the CIA, National Security Agency and Booz Allen Consulting in Geneva, Japan, Maryland and Hawaii, Mills suffers Snowden’s professional disenchantments without realizing the dangers of his position . . . dramatic tension achieved at the cost of domestic tranquility.

Snowden’s voyage from military family enlistee to ex-pat whistleblowing patriot is hastened by his witnessing the testimony of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper perjuring himself before a Congressional committee in March 2013, stating that the NSA does not collect any type of data at all on millions of Americans. Snowden, of course, has firsthand knowledge that this is exactly what our intelligence services do, U.S. Constitution notwithstanding. Terrorism becomes the excuse to violate Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable searches and seizures. The promise of security becomes the agent for economic and social controls.

“Snowden” is a movie with no car chases and where no one dies (yet). It is a film with no super natural heroes, though with many very real ones. The plight of Edward Snowden, Lindsay Mills and our fragile democracy are well served by actors Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Rhys Ifans, Nicholas Cage, Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood and Joely Richardson. Kieran Fitzgerald and Director Oliver Stone have written a screenplay which clearly runs us through a minefield of complex technical and legal issues, balancing them against their personal consequences to the film’s characters.

Finally, the project itself is yet another testament to the vision, strength and courage of Director Oliver Stone who stubbornly refuses to surrender the principles upon which this country was originally based. Salute.

This article was reposted from the Huffington Post.


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.