Movie Review: Snowden (2016)

Submitted by Scott Dowdle on Thu, 09/15/2016 - 06:42

Snowden PosterLast night Gary Bummer (fellow BozemanLUG member) and I went to a special event at our local move theater.  It was a showing (2 days early) of Oliver Stone's "Snowden" film (trailer) about... did you guess it?... Edward Snowden.  This showing was dubbed, "Snowden Live" because after the film there was to be a live satellite feed of a discussion with five people, one via webcam from Russia.  The ticket price was a bit higher than a normal movie ($15 vs. $10.45) but still very reasonable.

Before I write about the film I'll  mention that I already knew a lot about Edward Snowden and his story.  I've watched the "Citizenfour" documentary (trailer, it's on YouTube?) several times as well as seen about a half dozen TV specials and read many web articles and of course, like most everyone else, lived through it as an American citizen with all of the national media reports.  I wasn't expecting much new, substantial information in the film.

The Film
What "Snowden" does is put a human face on Mr. Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (played by Shailene Woodley).  It also does a good job of peering into their lives and presenting what it might be like working deep inside the intelligence community of the United States post-911.  As you would expect from an Oliver Stone film, it is beautiful, fluid, and entertaining.  It is also definitely a work of art... and by that I mean, it has several attributes added in to be more interesting (like a totally unnecessary sex scene with partial nudity), and some artistic license taken.  The film makes quite an effort to elevate Snowden's stature within the various agencies and contracting companies at which he worked... by making it seem as if Edward was a near-genius who worked on major projects.  I don't know how accurate all of the details in the film were... but many of those details simply weren't that important anyway.

In a nutshell, the film makes a case that whatever laws Edward Snowden broke were morally right for him to break on at least three levels: 1) Constitutionally (what the government was doing was illegal), 2) Ethically (at least three bigger wigs within the government agencies had tried various legal ways and failed horribly) and 3) Personally (they were spying on him and his girlfriend).  The film also implies that the later was really the last straw for Snowden.  It was also made clear that Snowden made a concerted effort not to "leak" like Wikileaks, but instead to give the secret documents to journalists that he had hand picked to do-the-right-thing in the most responsible manner possible.  Snowden was very aware of the sacrifices he would potentially have to make.

As I'm guessing you can guess, the film makes him out to be a hero.  I did cringe a little whenever I noticed the little bits of obvious "hollywoodness", but overall it was a very personal and emotional film that didn't waste a lot of time digging into all of the techie stuff.  While it did cover some computery topics it did so in such a way as not to confuse or over-complicate the story and it was completely digestible by non-techies.

About that "Live"
So, now on to the "Live" portion of the event.  Unfortunately our cinema had some technical difficulties and was about 30 minutes late in getting the movie started.  We were also given a 5 minute break after the movie ended.  As a result, the "live" event that came after was close to if not completely over with by the time we got to see it... but see it we did... as a recording.

Some interesting things that came from the Q&A ---  Joseph Gordon-Levitt got to meet Edward Snowden's parents, two grand-mothers, and his step-mother at the premiere of the film the previous night (perhaps not all at that one event?) and they said that they could actually see Edward within the performance and they definitely approved of the film (from JG-L's recollection).  Edward Snowden did not actually smuggle out a microSD card in a Rubik's Cube as shown in the film but he did buy a bunch of them and gave them away as gifts to various co-workers so they were all around one or more of the offices he worked in.  Privacy is still important and indeed is not dead.  The best way to take action (for any interested viewer) is to learn more about the issues, participate in public discussions, and get involved politically.  There were no real fluff questions and while it wasn't scripted I wouldn't be surprised if everyone had gotten a list of the questions before the event so they could prepare... as all of the answers were very well thought out and fairly concise... although in the case of Mr. Snowden, he has done quite a bit of webcam-based interviews, presentations and discussions from Russia over the last couple of years so I'm sure he could have easily spoken much more in depth if that had been the venue for it... which it was not.  The only awkward part of the whole thing was Oliver Stone getting his third birthday cake of the day and the obligatory singing of the "Happy Birthday".

As a Linux fan, one thing that dissapointed me was the use of way more Microsoft Windows and Mac OS in the computer screen shots... than Linux.  Sure there was a ton of command line windows and text streaming by... but usually with a Windows logo at the bottom left corner.  I don't think the word "Linux" was ever mentioned.  One thing that was highly featured in the film was the"Electronic Frontier Foundation" (EFF) sticker Edward had on the back of his laptop.  At times it almost felt like a commercial for the EFF... and that was a good thing.

I don't think I spoiled the movie too much and I highly recommend you go and see it.  By the way, since we got such a late start, the cinama folks gave each audience member a free ticket to see another movie.  That was awesome.  Thanks Regal Gallatin Valley Cinemas 11!

Social and Political Analysis
Is Edward Snowden a hero?  I think so.  Did he break some laws?  Definitely.  Should he be held accountable for the laws he broke?  Yes and no.  The problem is that since this is dealing with national intelligence and security, a lot of the penalties can be quite severe. There have been former government employees who have been executed for being spies and some believe Mr. Snowden falls into that category.  While I think there should be some penalties, death should be completely off the table.  Should he serve jail time?  Probably... but how long and how hard should that time be?  Ideally Edward Snowden should get a pardon from President Obama at the tail end of his term like is so often the case when Presidents are leaving office... but I think the political price of that for Obama would be great and I don't see it is very probable although I believe the ACLU is lobbying for it.  A more likely scenario is that there will be lots and lots of talk but nothing will change and  Mr. Snowden will have to remain outside of the United States and do his best to avoid getting captured and brought back to the United States otherwise... well, you get the picture, right?

How good of a job did the journalists (that Snowden hand picked) do at getting the secret information out in a conscientious way? Reasonably well in my estimation.  I don't think any mistakes the journalists might have made should be pinned on  Snowden.  Did people die as a result of the information that was released and because of any mistakes made in process? I'll leave that to the experts to debate and decide.