Snowden goes Hollywood, then goes live

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Usually when an internet video feed cuts out, the people watching sigh, grumble, or curse their bad luck. When the live feed cut out from Edward Snowden being interviewed after the Fathom Events early preview of Oliver Stone’s film depicting the last few years of Snowden’s life, audiences around the nation gasped. Had they finally caught him? Did a drone strike take out his secret hideout in Russia, as the movie showed happening to anonymous targets via video in an NSA base?

Fortunately not, or unfortunately depending on your opinion of the now world famous surveillance leaker. A few seconds later when he came back on screen the power of Hollywood was proven viscerally. A simple computer glitch had rendered audiences horrified in the immediate context of such a dramatic film.

And dramatic it was. Stone is undeniably an auteur behind the camera, whether you agree with his perspective of his subject or not. And he chooses those subjects carefully. Snowden himself was portrayed expertly by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who took on his speech, mannerisms, and look brilliantly, sometimes making me forget it was even a fictional portrayal at all.

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In order to add a personal dimension to the cold, heartless world of data analysis and global surveillance, Stone focused on how the things Snowden learned, and hid until ultimately revealing them, affected his relationship with his still-girlfriend Lindsay Mills, played prosaicly by Shailene Woodley, and even his own health. After the film, Snowden himself lamented that the press had treated Mills as an “ornament” in his story, not knowing what else to do with an attractive woman in this kind of discussion. Stone’s film did a lot to give a relatable personality to someone most of us have only ever seen in photos published to add additional controversy to Snowden’s story.

Apart from the issue of surveillance itself, Snowden had a lot of partisan politics too. In their first meeting, Snowden and Mills wander through an anti-war demonstration in front of the White House in 2004. Mills signs a petition, but Snowden declines. He starts out very conservative, supporting the war, supporting the intel operations he began working on, because he thought they were necessary, specifically targeted, and constitutional. As he ascended the ranks of the CIA and NSA, it became clear that none of those things were true.

Snowden placed his final hopes in Obama, who ran in 2008 partly on eliminating warrantless wiretaps and returning civil liberties to prominence. Within a year his hopes faded as Obama defended surveillance programs against early critics and even initially against Snowden’s own leaks. Snowden and his Guardian publishers later watched the clip of James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, lying to Congress that Americans’ data was not being purposefully collected, was featured prominently. They shook their heads, as did we all that day.

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In the interview following the film, Oliver Stone said Snowden was initially reluctant to have a film made about him. However, he realized that it was eventually going to happen one way or another, and it would be better to have a sympathetic eye behind the camera telling his version of events rather than someone else turning him into the villain without his input.

Snowden definitely isn’t the villain of his self-titled film, though many Americans still consider him one. They have a responsibility to see the full story from the man himself. Snowden officially premiered Friday.


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