Last week I watched “Snowden.” Before I share my thoughts, I should admit: I don’t particularly like Edward Snowden. I find treason and stolen valor to be major turn-offs.
Now, I like to bring attention to men and women who are exceptionally spirited in pursuit of the good and at great sacrifice to themselves. It’s right for societies to pile praise on those who demonstrate courage and self-sacrifice, especially when we catch folks doing this who clearly did not set out to do it with the expectation of being praised.
Snowden’s infamous thieving of highly classified intelligence and subsequent cowering in the bosom of authoritarian Russia while seeking international fame is the opposite of this. He has demonstrated a long history of lying, exaggerating, cheating, quitting, and self-promoting, and it culminated in the crime he is now known for in which he sacrificed the good (and almost certainly lives) for the sake of personal glory. Hollywood is eager to give it to him.
After I saw the “Snowden” trailer, I didn’t shy from passing judgment on the whole film. It’s clear from the trailer that Oliver Stone created a movie to try to earn Snowden favor from the public, possibly with the goal of helping him win clemency. But, out of curiosity, I decided to watch the film.
This Could At Least Present the Best Case for Snowden
Besides, it could still be entertaining, right? Even if it’s not accurate and leaves out the most critical details, it could be exciting, have sympathetic, interesting characters, and maybe even get us thinking about some of the complexities related to government’s role in protecting the country and honoring privacy protections.
After all, Attorney General Eric Holder did say, “We can certainly argue about the way in which Snowden did what he did, but I think that he actually performed a public service by raising the debate that we engaged in and by the changes that we made.” I disagree this is what Snowden did, but thought maybe this movie, in an entertaining, artistic way, could make this case in as persuasive a way as only a $50 million budget can.
But no, it did not. The movie is stuffed full of overt attempts to force the viewer to see Snowden as benevolent, patriotic, brilliant, humble … you get the point. It’s over the top, literally unbelievable, and its lefty “America stinks” moralizing gets annoying. (One lesson preached to us in a particular scene is that our intelligence community employees should probably do some introspection after reflecting on the Nuremburg trials. Nuremburg? Come on, Stone.)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Edward Snowden) plays an awkward fellow who laughs at jokes told at his expense and demurs when his photography-obsessed girlfriend (played by Shailene Woodley) weirdly insists on taking close-ups of him while they stroll. She’s mostly obsessed with taking and displaying nude or revealing photos of herself. I don’t know much about the real Lindsay Mills, but for her sake, let’s hope this was a severely underdeveloped character.
The movie hits hard on Snowden’s military “service,” and I wish I had counted the number of times the word “access” was used to describe how much trust the National Security Agency leadership had in Snowden, or the number of times Snowden name-dropped senior officials he had spoken to. (We get it, Ed. You had a photo op with former NSA head Michael Hayden. This means nothing.)
Add the silly dramatic camera angles, including one in which the villain, Snowden’s NSA mentor played by Rhys Ifans, is on a giant computer screen, face really close to the camera, talking down to the comparatively little, innocent, bright-eyed Ed Snowden. The result was a hokey, eye-roll-inducing, predictably leftist public relations film for the real Ed, complete with a melodramatic cameo from the habitual quitter and serial liar himself.
Having established that the movie is an entertainment dud, let’s move on to five myths it peddles, and then I’ll say one nice thing about it to end on a positive note.
Myth One: Snowden was super extra careful about the kind of intelligence he stole and exercised Solomonic wisdom in how and to whom he released it to.
In the movie, Snowden is portrayed as one who, although willing to “blow the whistle” on the less popular aspects of NSA surveillance, was really judicious about handling intelligence. For example, in the movie he was extra careful about protecting his passwords from the journalists he gives the stolen classified data to, and, after sharing a massive amount of intelligence with them, he dramatically “deletes” what he stole, claiming he no longer possesses it.
In reality, the government believes Snowden stole 1.77 million NSA files, and of that, he gave about 200,000 files related to surveillance and the metadata program most people associate with Snowden to reporters Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. The rest of the data had to do with a variety of the most highly sensitive military technologies and military and cyber operations. According to reports, both Russia and China obtained those files, and one doesn’t have to speculate too hard about how.
Myth Two: Snowden is a paragon of loyalty and stick-to-it-iveness.
The movie would have you believe Snowden became disenchanted with the expansive powers of the intelligence world, but he was so sucked in and the NSA needed him so badly, he just couldn’t leave. Actually, a quick scan of Snowden’s resume suggests he had the attention span of a gnat and is perfectly happy calling it quits.
I have a hard time imagining someone hiring him at Staples. The only thing consistent is his inability to finish anything. He didn’t finish high school, he didn’t finish community college, tried his hand at the Army Reserves and washed out after four months of training, tried community college again and quit. A year after that he scored a job as a security guard at the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language.
Evidently the center has connections to the intel world, and after a micro-second of a stint there he parlayed that gig into an information-technology job with the Central Intelligence Agency. He was able to hold on to this job until his employer suspected him of trying to break into classified files. From there he hopped over to private contractors. While with Dell he was a subcontractor in an NSA office. He was only there a very short time before moving over to Booz Allen, another NSA subcontracting gig, until he fled the country three months later after copying all those NSA files.
Myth Three: Snowden cares so very much about civil liberties.
Throughout the movie, we see the Snowden character “evolve” from a patriotic guy uninterested in dissing President Bush or the wars in Iraq to an “enlightened” liberal whose heart aches for innocent Americans (and non-Americans being spied on overseas) who have not consented to having the NSA scoop up their metadata. In one scene his girlfriend cheers on his “inner liberal.”
If Snowden really cared about civil liberties, fleeing to China and then Russia, two countries directly undermining the United States and with no “civil liberty” protections to speak of, is a pretty bizarre way to prove it. For a great defender of government criticism, Russia is especially an interesting place to call home now—you know, the country where dissidents and outspoken critics of the government die violently, mysteriously, and young.
Also, as already covered, Snowden didn’t just reveal the domestic metadata program. He stole files that have nothing to do with questions of U.S. civil liberties.
Myth Four: Snowden was a very special, beloved, senior employee of the National Security Agency.
The movie hits the “access” theme hard and would have you believe Snowden was a very senior, indispensable, and well-liked NSA employee. In fact, Snowden was a low-level employee of NSA subcontractors, and it sure seems like he didn’t know about the programs he had sought to reveal.
In fact, Snowden was a low-level employee of NSA subcontractors. According to the bipartisan congressional report on his security breach, “It is also not clear Snowden understood the numerous privacy protections that govern the activities of the IC. He failed basic annual training for NSA employees on Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and complained the training was rigged to be overly difficult. This training included explanations of the privacy protections related to the PRISM program that Snowden would later disclose.”
Moreover, in refuting Snowden’s claims that he tried to report abuse of the law, the same report revealed “his only contact to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Inspector General (IG) revolved around his disagreements with his managers about training and retention of information technology specialists.” Sounds like he had some disharmony with human resources.
Myth Five: Snowden’s Army “service” is something to write home about.
Snowden was “in the Army” for four months. He acquired shin splints during his initial training, which is at least partly why he washed out. The movie plays his Army “service” up pretty hard, even portraying him as a good marksman—a skill he acquired from the U.S. Army. Considering his penchant for quitting everything he started, it’s not unfair to assume the Army just didn’t hold Snowden’s tiny attention span. Also, boot camp is hard. Oh, and it demands respect for authority, so not really Ed’s cup of tea.
One nice thing about the film, as promised: at one point towards the end of the movie Snowden waxes poetic about what he perceives as America’s wickedness. He laments that rather than merely playing defense against those countries currently trying to harm the United States, it was as if the NSA’s goal was maintaining “American supremacy.”
In doing so, the movie cuts to the chase. There isn’t a particular NSA program, narrow in scope but vast in its security violations, that keeps Oliver Stone’s Snowden up at night. It’s the NSA’s very mission: maintaining global superiority for the United States. It’s what all Americans should and for the most part do expect out of our government. This little nugget is the gem of the film.
Edward Snowden is no courageous, sacrificial champion for the little guy, civil liberties, or freedom. Rather, he’s a threat to them. Hollywood’s best attempt just can’t convincingly make him a hero.