Last night, a handful of people and I watched the premier of Oliver Stone’s latest film, Snowden, a biopic about NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden. Oliver Stone, who turned 70 today, has written and directed over two dozen films, many of which are considered masterpieces. Alexander, Natural Born Killers, JFK, and Platoon are among my personal favorites. A live interview with Oliver Stone, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who played Snowden), Shailene Woodley (who played Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills), and Edward Snowden himself followed the premier. Oliver Stone is known for his politically-charged movies, and he doesn’t try to hide his biases. Snowden is an effective piece of propaganda. It’s nearly flawless as a film in terms of acting, editing, pacing, and dialog, but lacks the depth usually given to such a controversial subject.
First, here’s what Snowden gets right. Every actor and actress in this movie is on point. Every character feels genuine. Nicolas Cage, in top form, even makes a cameo as Hank Forrester, a (fictional) disillusioned CIA instructor. Shailene Woodley is perfect as Lindsay Mills, a free spirited, liberal photographer Snowden falls in love with. One of the advantages of portraying a living person is you are able to study their mannerisms, tone, and expressions. Joseph Gordon-Levitt studied his subject well. Levitt, as Snowden, narrates throughout the entire film, as he is telling his story to a group of journalists, but the dialog is tight and the narration never gets bogged down in needless exposition.
Snowden is well-crafted. In one particularly memorable scene, Corbin O’Brian, Snowden’s fictional CIA handler, takes Snowden hunting and they discuss his career’s future. The natural scene, the birds, hounds, metal and wooden shotguns, a hunting lodge, are perfectly juxtaposed against their conversation about cyberspace, computer network defense, and foreign enemies. It was a conversation Oliver Stone could have easily set in a fastpaced room with wires, computer monitors, servers, and shadowy figures typing furiously at keyboards, but instead he chose to ground these abstract concepts in a stark, low-tech, almost serene environment.
The film’s visual authenticity is also its greatest weakness: because Snowden is almost entirely fictional. It is a fairytale meant to portray Edward Snowden as a reluctant hero who is compelled to speak out against an out-of-control national security state, explicitly compared in one scene with Nazi Germany. When given the opportunity to comment on the film’s truthfulness in the live interview, Snowden himself claimed it accurately portrayed events. For me, the film raised red flags in the very beginning when in basic training Snowden calls his drill sergeant “Sir.” Soldiers in the U.S. Army do not call drill sergeants “Sir.” You may think this is nitpicking, but if Oliver Stone is willing to fudge this minor detail for the sake of convention, or because it’s what the audience expects to hear, what other facts is he willing to fudge for the sake of the story?
Quite a bit, as it turns out. This article discusses some of the major inaccuracies of the film, including characters and situations that are simply made up. Oliver Stone portrays Snowden as a genius and a rising star in the intelligence community, which jives with his own inflated image of himself. Snowden reportedly lied on his resume, saying he attended Johns Hopkins University, a Tokyo campus of the University of Maryland, and the University of Liverpool in Britain. In fact, Johns Hopkins has no record of him attending classes there, he attended one summer semester at the University of Maryland, and registered for but did not attend classes at the University of Liverpool. This inflated sense of accomplishment is reflected in the film–not as a personality flaw, but as undisputed truth.
Contrast Snowden with the 2013 thriller about Julian Assange and Wikileaks, The Fifth Estate, and this one-sided portrayal becomes even more obvious. The Fifth Estate portrayed Julian Assange as a complex figure–someone who believed he was acting for the greater good but whose personal flaws cast a shadow over his actions. Snowden only shows one side of the story–as told by Snowden himself. Therefore, the audience is never led to question Snowden’s version of events. In my opinion, this takes away from what otherwise would be a compelling film about current events.