|Moderator Matt Zoller Seitz (left to right), stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley, and director Oliver Stone at a screening of Snowden on Wednesday night in Manhattan.|
The story was never supposed to be Edward Snowden. The story should have been the National Security Agency, domestic spying, the circumvention of due process, and the end of privacy as we thought we knew it. For a while – a few days maybe – it was, but the complexity of the issue and the overwhelming scope of the offense made for a tale that was less Aesop and more Tolstoy. Put simply, the media could not sell it. The story of an ex-CIA spy going on the run after revealing secrets of national security, however, was one they could sell.
When the public grabs hold of your story, it ceases to become your own. The narrative builds on itself. People choose to believe the parts that fit their argument and disregard the rest. No one has the full picture, nor could they comprehend it if they did. If it ever was, this is no longer a culture that can digest complex issues. It is a culture of soundbites and snippets, headlines and clicks, tweets and shares. Arouse anger. Fuel suspicion. Light a match and hope there is profit in the flame. All of which is a roundabout way of saying: None of us knows Snowden well enough to judge him, and none of us is in a position to judge anyway.
On Wednesday night, in the Loews Theatre at the AMC Lincoln Square in Manhattan, Oliver Stone, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Shailene Woodley sat and spoke with author and critic Matt Zoller Seitz after a screening of their new film, Snowden, which seeks to explore the man behind the mythos. They were joined, via satellite feed from Moscow, by Snowden, who is among the most impressive people I have ever had the chance to see speak. Their 45-minute discussion, which was broadcast across the country to more than 700 theaters, covered everything from the weather in Moscow to the importance of privacy, even in a world dominated by social media.
“It’s easy for the media to spin a story and to portray a certain narrative,” said Woodley. “Something that fascinated me about this screenplay to begin with was a lot of us know who Edward Snowden is, or we thought we knew who he was, and a lot of people have a lot of strong judgments about Edward Snowden, and I feel like until this movie, none of us actually knew the story of Ed the human. We knew the story that mainstream media had put out, we knew the story that the government had released, but we didn’t know his story.”
Snowden’s story, as Seitz addressed and Stone acknowledged, has many parallels to another Stone protagonist, Ron Kovic, the real-life hero portrayed by Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July. Both men loved their country and made immense personal sacrifices for its protection. Both men then were disheartened and disillusioned by what their fights proved in the service of – Kovic’s fight the war in Vietnam and Snowden’s the global cyberwar, which turned out to be a massive civilian spying program. Finally, both men were ostracized and demonized for speaking out against the corruption and moral decay they witnessed.
What is easy to forget – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, what is convenient to forget – about people like Snowden, Kovic or anyone else who speaks out against the government is this: They are patriots, more so than any one of us who says nothing or follows blindly the edicts of the ruling class. To speak out against the U.S., you must love it. To criticize your nation’s actions, you must believe it is capable of better. To question its motives, you must care deeply about its direction.
The benefit of telling the story of Snowden’s life leading up to the reveal of the NSA’s domestic spying program is to understand the kind of person he was and the kind of circumstances that would drive him to such dramatic action. When he chose to go public with what he knew, Snowden was a 29-year-old government employee with a beautiful, supportive girlfriend living in Hawaii and making a fortune. His life was, for lack of a better term, idyllic. It serves us then to question what could be so morally repugnant, so clearly offensive to basic humanity, as to make a person give that up.
“Silence is the biggest weapon that’s used against us,” Snowden said. “We don’t want to be weird. We don’t want to be different. We don’t want to say anything at all. But that kind of thing is de-mobilizing. That’s the kind of thing that makes people think we don’t care. That’s the kind of thing that makes government officials think they can get away with anything. … Whistleblowing – whistleblowers are elected by circumstance. It’s not about where you went to school. It’s not about who you know. It’s about what you see.
“If you see something and you have feelings about it, share them. Try to do something about it. That’s not to say burn your life to the ground and try to be a martyr. We don’t need martyrs. What we need are people who care and say something about it and try to do something in an effective way. Don’t destroy your life for nothing, but if you see an opportunity to share the reality of what’s actually going on in our world, particularly behind closed doors, recognize that that may be an opportunity to make the world a better place.”
At this, the audience burst into applause. There was much cheering for Snowden’s words and those of the assembled filmmakers who brought his story to life. While the feed from Moscow was being set up, one audience member shouted out, calling Stone a hero, a plaudit the three-time Academy Award winner politely demurred. Much as the evening was a forum for a serious discussion about global security and the right to privacy, it was also a celebration of an impressively mounted, elegantly conceived Hollywood film.
Snowden is the kind of smart political thriller the industry has little patience for these days, preferring instead stories where the president is taken hostage by terrorists and must blast his way to safety. Stone makes this film with the belief his audience is intelligent and attentive, and viewers are rewarded with a film that neither dumbs down the complex nature of its story nor weaves a tale so byzantine it proves impossible to follow. It finds balance in ways few big-budget, star-driven vehicles do.
Gordon-Levitt, Woodley, and Stone
To that end, leads Gordon-Levitt and Woodley deliver wonderful performances, with Gordon-Levitt effectively disappearing into the role of Snowden and Woodley, as Snowden’s longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills, providing a sturdy anchor to keep the audience moored amid the ever-choppier waters of the story. Some will argue the love story is a distraction from the more pressing matters at hand in the film, but his relationship with Mills is among the things that makes Snowden so human, so relatable.
“If you’re going to do a character, I like characters who change or undergo tremendous difficulty or adversity and either keep their character or change it. Depends on the circumstance,” Stone said. “It always comes back to a drama, comes back to a person, persons, and that fascinates me. People will make this thing go. As much scientific technology as there is in a movie, especially this one, it comes down to the faces who are looking at the computers. Unless you feel what Joe’s feeling or Shailene is feeling, you’re not going to follow the computer story.”
Those parallel narratives – the human story and the computer story – are both magnificently executed by Stone and his team, in particular cinematographer Anthony Dodd Mantle, who captures several perfect moments and images within the film’s largely frenetic pace. One beautifully rendered sequence in particular stands out as Snowden lays out for documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), who directed Oscar winner Citizenfour, the scope of the NSA’s spy program.
If the government looks at all the people one person knows and all the people those people know, and so on, by the fourth level out, the privacy of millions is being invaded for no reason other than a tenuous connection to a connection to a connection. Stone conceives the scene visually as a cascading map of human interconnectedness in which we are eventually all connected and all of our personal information funnels into the black hole of the government’s prying eye.
Perhaps none of this moves you. There is a strong likelihood you are not a terrorist nor affiliated with anyone remotely linked to terrorism. Perhaps you do not steal. You do not cheat. You do not lie. You think, for all intents and purposes, you have nothing to hide and, thus, nothing to fear. It is the common line of argument among supporters of the domestic spying program. I cannot refute this more strongly or eloquently than Snowden himself, so here he is:
“One of the most important things – and I think we all have a duty collectively in society to remember this – is to think about when we’re being manipulated, when we’re being told to think a certain way and accept a certain argument reflexively without actually tackling it,” said Snowden. “The common argument that we have – if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear – the origins of that are literally Nazi propaganda. This is not to equate the actions of our current government to the Nazis … but that is literally the origin of that quote. It’s from the minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.
“So when we hear modern politicians, when we hear modern people repeating that reflexively, without confronting its origins, without confronting what it really says, I think that’s harmful. And if we actually think about it, it doesn’t really make sense because privacy isn’t about something to hide. Privacy is about something to protect, and that’s who you are, that’s what you believe in, that’s who you want to become. Privacy is the right to the self. Privacy is what gives you the ability to share with the world who you are on your own terms, for them to understand what you’re trying to be, and to protect for yourself the parts of you that you’re not sure about, that you’re still experimenting with.
“If we don’t have privacy, what we’re losing is the ability to make mistakes. We’re losing the ability to be ourselves. Privacy is the fountainhead of all other rights. Freedom of speech doesn’t have a lot of meaning if you can’t have a quiet space, a space within yourself, within your mind, within your community, your friends, your home, to decide what it is that you actually want to say. Freedom of religion doesn’t actually mean that much if you can’t figure out what you actually believe without being influenced by the criticisms and outside direction and peer pressure of others. And it goes on and on and on.
“Privacy is baked into our language, our core concept of government itself in every way. It’s why we call it private property. Without privacy, you don’t have anything for yourself. So when people say that to me, I say back, ‘Arguing that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like arguing that you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.’”