Snowden is a rather controversial film, arguably more for its role as an adaptation of Edward Snowden's story than for its subject matter in general. It has been compared with mixed reception to the 2014 documentary Citizenfour, which also covered Snowden's disclosure of intelligence agencies like the NSA and CIAs' mass unwarranted surveillance of internet and phone conversations across the world. Opinions about Snowden vary almost as widely as they did about Citizenfour; it is either a welcome adaptation of a very dramatic and important moment in recent history, or an unnecessary dramatisation of events that glorifies a person who did not want to be the centre of the story anyway. Three years on after Snowden's disclosure of the scale of mass surveillance, this film has a different objective, as the context surrounding the story is somewhat common knowledge now. The aim of this film is to portray Snowden's years working for the CIA and NSA, and to contextualise his decision to become a whistleblower.
For the film to be judged as a success or a failure on these terms, its portrayal of Snowden has to be central. Snowden's career is followed from a rocky portrayal of his attempt to join the special forces, complete with its own Drill Sergeant Nasty, but thankfully that is dropped early on. What follows is Snowden's work in various intelligence agencies, where his views on what they are doing change from general approval to intense opposition.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a great performance that evades the corniness that undermines other performances, such as Zachary Quinto's portrayal of Glenn Greenwald. As much as the film is about the build-up to Snowden's political decision, the scenes about his personal life are still handled very well, particularly with how his own knowledge of the extent of surveillance changes it. However it is perhaps the saving grace of the film that it keeps its focus on the intelligence services central, especially given how his decision to disclose the information is not portrayed as deeply personal but as a result of having the faith in his country consistently undermined by the actions of the agencies. After the disclosure, Snowden was often criticised as a mercenary figure acting for personal gain, so it is paramount that a portrayal of Snowden's decision is rooted in his political concerns about the agencies' abuses.
The personal ramifications for the extent of mass surveillance are repeatedly made clear to great effect. One of the first instances shown is the unwarranted investigation into a Saudi businessman's family life which results in his daughter nearly killing herself and the man being extorted by the CIA, even though the man himself was not tied to any terrorist organisations. From there we are shown how Snowden's girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, is being watched because of their relationship and how webcams of ordinary citizens can be covertly accessed, and even how being nearby a person with the wrong mobile phone can result in being bombed by a Reaper drone. This ensures that the important answer to the question "Why does this matter?" is answered clearly, especially given how the extent of surveillance and its consequences is not always immediately clear. Lindsay in the film even brings up the mentality that often came up in many threads about the disclosure - 'I've got nothing to hide anyway' - which also gets addressed and critiqued in the film. It becomes clear how the information and influence mass surveillance provide is being used for far more than just combating terrorism, but also for consolidating political and economic control over enemy and ally alike.
One problematic aspect of the film is how dramatised certain elements are, such as the scenes involving Snowden and Corbin O'Brian (his supervisor) and his various interactions with other staff members. They work when they demonstrate how the powers the various agencies have can be abused (and how this affects Snowden's perspective), but at they also somewhat erode the impact each revelation has about the abuses of power, as it undermines the close attachment it has to actual events and abuses. This is a common criticism, especially in comparison to the documentary Citizenfour. One benefit of such dramatisations is that it ensures each scene can demonstrate the impact of every decision based on the mass surveillance (or merely just complacency) of the intelligence agencies and present a debate of ideologies.
As a film about Snowden on its own merits, it is well written and well performed, and its characterisation of Snowden and its account of his changing perspective is handled quite well. However, I recommend anyone interested in finding out more to look for the Guardian articles that first disclosed these abuses, but the film itself is still an interesting presentation of Snowden's story.
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