As editor of The Snowden Reader, I spent many hours with the documents, issues, and emotions Edward Snowden revealed, raised, and riled through his disclosures about intelligence programs operated by the National Security Agency (NSA). So, of course, I was going to see Snowden, the new movie directed by Oliver Stone.
I knew the movie would resuscitate “the question” that polarized people after the disclosures began in June 2013: Snowden, hero or traitor? Indeed, in the days before the movie’s release, Snowden supporters mounted a campaign for a presidential pardon (the hero narrative), and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released a summary of a report on the leaks blasting Snowden as a serial liar who “caused tremendous damage to national security” (the traitor narrative).
The “hero or traitor” question never proved helpful in getting at the marrow of what Snowden did, why he did it, and whether his actions changed—or should change—our perspectives on liberty and security in the digital age. The stark, unforgiving dichotomy of that question obscured difficulties the hero and traitor narratives encountered when fact and fiction could be teased apart, revealing more complicated challenges Snowden forced us to confront. At least in my experience, getting people past the “hero or traitor” question often revealed more tempered attitudes in both camps.
For example, I frequently heard the following sentiment from people supportive of, or sympathetic to, what Snowden did, “I wish we had a different hero.” This sentiment emerged, I think, from the terrible optics of a self-proclaimed champion of human rights being a guest of Vladimir Putin and from deep disquiet about many disclosures that appeared to help America’s adversaries more than they advanced principles and causes Snowden claimed to defend.
Conversely, the traitor narrative faced headwinds created by the impact Snowden had. Time and again the Obama administration retreated from positions it initially staked out in order to craft new policies and support new laws responding to concerns Snowden’s disclosures generated. Here, indeed, was a curious form of treason—one that bent policy and law in its direction. That dynamic is something never seen in connection with other persons considered traitors in American history, from Benedict Arnold to Aldrich Ames. Perhaps those angry at Snowden might have preferred a different kind of traitor.
I did not expect Oliver Stone to explore these intriguing facets of the Snowden saga, but the movie fails badly even with its embrace of the “hero narrative.” Stone tries to make Snowden more human and accessible by emphasizing Snowden’s relationship with Lindsay Mills. This approach misfires because, first, the actors portraying Snowden and Mills have no chemistry onscreen, which simply made this plot device a plodding plot device. Second, nothing in this movie rivals the mesmerizing footage in Laura Poitras’ documentary, Citizenfour, which powerfully humanized Snowden at the very moment he entered history.
The movie also fails the “hero narrative” by pitting Snowden against a parade of cartoonish spooks who are too nerdy, lunkish, or sinister to understand, as apparently only Snowden does, their Nazi-esque participation in Nuremburg-scale crimes. In this respect, the movie exhibits the worst features of schlocky Hollywood “dramatization” of real events, down to the laugh-inducing (at least among those in my cinema audience) “Big Brother” scene between Snowden and his CIA (tor)mentor, Corbin O’Brien. If Snowden did not deserve better than this farcical scene, then George Orwell certainly did.
In many ways, the movie is an attempted act of myth making—the story of an ordinary man who finds the courage to confront dark and dangerous forces through personal sacrifice. Unfortunately, the myth making succumbed to tedious tinseltown tropes and slandered decent people who work in the intelligence community. And, sadly for Snowden, it cheapened with auteur fiction the searing difficulties of what he actually did and the real challenges he placed before the American body politic. But, hey, it’s only Hollywood—what do you expect? Honestly, given the significance of Snowden’s actions for liberty and security, a different kind of myth . . .
David P. Fidler is the James Louis Calamaras Professor of Law at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law and an Adjunct Senior Fellow for Cybersecurity at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is editor of the award-winning The Snowden Reader, published by Indiana University Press.