Is former NSA analyst Edward Snowden a courageous, whistleblowing patriot or a reckless, despicable traitor? That question lies at the heart of director Oliver Stone’s latest effort, a ripped-from-the-news biopic bearing Snowden’s surname and chronicling his undeniably dramatic narrative.
As the film opens, Snowden is holed up in a posh hotel in Hong Kong, meeting with two documentarians, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, as well as seasoned Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill. Over the course of several days of filming and interviewing in that cramped space, Snowden downloads his story (verbally) as well as his massive cache of clandestine classified documents (literally).
The balance of his tale is told in a series of pinballing flashback scenes between 2004 and 2013. It attempts to explain why a man who once loved his country unquestionably has decided that it can’t be trusted with the intelligence it’s gathering—information not just on terrorists and hostile political opponents, but on millions upon millions of unsuspecting Americans who have no clue that their laptops, emails and smartphones are but a few clicks away from an NSA agent’s access to them.
At its thematic core, Snowden is a story about one man’s increasingly troubled conscience. Early in the film, we see that Edward Snowden deeply desires to make a difference for his country in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001. But his Army Special Forces career is cut short due to stress fractures in both of his legs. Snowden, however, is not without other talents. Indeed, the self-taught computer savant who never even graduated high school soon finds an opportunity to serve his country that’s much better suited to his particular set of skills.
And so Snowden begins a long and winding journey through the CIA and NSA with an idealistic belief that what he’s doing—and what his country is doing—is both noble and good. In one of his first interviews with the Agency, he says, “The internet is a technology that can help people understand each other.” As his story unspools, however, Snowden becomes increasingly disillusioned with what he finds while working for various intel agencies. He’s uneasy with both the amount of data these shadowy agencies collect as well as what they do with it.
Snowden watches with disbelief as a coworker easily hacks into a woman’s laptop and watches her begin to undress, for instance. He’s queasy with the CIA’s attempts to manipulate a Pakistani banker by gathering data on the man’s daughter that proves deeply damaging to both. And he’s sickened by the fact that a program he designed for the CIA to gather intelligence has been put to a deadlier use: helping drones zero in on targets’ cell phones right before obliterating them.
Another telling scene depicts a group of NSA agents at a secretive base in Hawaii watching their agency’s boss insist at a Congressional hearing that his staff doesn’t actively monitor or gather information on Americans—even as his agents are actively, aggressively tracking all manner of data generated by folks on the home front. This is another moment where Snowden grapples with the moral murkiness of his top-secret vocation. The final straw for him comes when he realizes that yet another program he’s written is actually collecting more information on Americans than people in any other country, which prompts him to come up with a way to smuggle sensitive data out of his top secret workplace.
Throughout these narrative beats, director Oliver Stone steadily builds the case that Snowden feels compelled to address what he’s seeing by blowing the whistle on it—a response to his conscience that the film depicts as acting with integrity, not infamy. He’s convinced that the public at large needs to know that the government’s data-gathering processes desperately need more accountability.
In this, the story begs the important question of whether it’s right, good and wise for any agency to have so much unfettered power. Snowden’s answer—as well as Stone’s—is a resounding no, echoing the old saw that absolute power ultimately corrupts absolutely. Stone likewise depicts the journalists and filmmakers who seek to tell Snowden’s story (which they successfully did in June 2013) as acting courageously by revealing what’s really been happening.
Walking beside Edward Snowden for much of this story is his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills. His inability to tell her much about what he’s doing leads to huge conflict between the couple (including one separation). But they keep trying to make a go of it despite the incredible difficulties they face in keeping their relationship alive. Both are willing to make sacrifices for the other at various points.
An NSA agent who provides intel for drone strikes realizes that his conscience has been numbed by watching too many video feeds of his targets being killed. He admits that it used to bother him, but he implies that it no longer does. Most importantly, he recognizes this dulling of his conscience as a bad thing.
One of Snowden’s superiors at the NSA asks him, “What is your sin of choice?” Snowden answers, “Computers.” Agents talk about Hellfire missiles. One of Snowden’s coworkers dubs their superiors the “council of wizards and warlocks.” When the same guy remotely watches a Muslim women disrobe (unbeknownst to her) via her webcam, he sarcastically after she removes her covering burka, “I always wondered what was under there.”
Snowden and Lindsay (who eventually move in together) kiss several times. A sex scene between them includes camera shots of her bare back and torso that barely evade shadowy frontal nudity, as well as explicit sounds and movements. Elsewhere, Snowden advises Lindsay to delete a series of pictures she’s taken of herself dancing nearly nude. We see very brief glimpses of these images, including some with breast nudity. Lindsay also wears cleavage-baring tops. Snowden is shown sans shirt.
One of Snowden’s fellow agents hacks into a woman’s laptop camera and watches as she begins to disrobe. Snowden (as well as the camera) turns away when she gets down to her underwear, but his coworker apparently continues to watch. Elsewhere, one of Snowden’s superiors tells him that the CIA has been spying on Lindsay and that she’s “not sleeping with that photographer friend of hers.”
A scene takes place in a strip club where women pole-dancing wearing skimpy lingerie. (It’s implied that an older, married man had a sexual encounter with a stripper in a private booth.) Lindsey teaches a pole-dancing class herself, and we see her (mostly middle-aged) students in tight and revealing gym clothes (sports bras, yoga pants, etc.). Soldiers are shown shirtless.
While getting out of a bunk as a soldier, Snowden breaks one leg badly. We see X-rays of the break, as well as the painful traction that he needs for the fracture to heal. (It’s also revealed that he’s got smaller stress fractures in both legs.)
Snowden, who’s an epileptic, has two seizures that cause him to collapse unexpectedly. A hunting scene pictures men shooting down two birds. Snowden and others repeatedly watch grainy, real-time drone footage of explosives being delivered to their Middle Eastern targets, obliterating people in explosive clouds of dust.
About 25 f-words and 15 s-words. God’s name is misused at least 10 times (including four pairings with “d–n”), while Jesus’ name gets abused twice. We hear a handful of uses each of “h—,” “a–,” “d–n,” “b–ch” and “b–tard.”
Characters consume various alcoholic beverages (mostly in social settings and bars). A despondent middle-aged man gets drunk. One person smokes. There’s a reference to sleeping pills.
We hear that Snowden’s epilepsy medication hinders his ability to think clearly (prompting him to go off the drug at one point, even though Lindsay thinks he’s still taking it, and he needs it in order to keep the seizures at bay).
As might be expected in a story filled with spies and intelligence agents, half-truths, subtle deceptions and outright lies pile up all over the place, including many that implicate the NSA, CIA and the federal government for not telling the American public the truth. Agents are also willing to frame innocents to advance their intelligence-gathering agenda at times.
So is Edward Snowden a traitor or a hero?
If all you had to go on was Oliver Stone’s depiction of this man—who is still living in Moscow as of this writing and evading criminal espionage charges in the United States—the answer is unequivocally the latter. Snowden, the movie, paints a compelling portrait (albeit an explicit, R-rated one) of a man who grows so disturbed by the job he and others around him are doing that he feels compelled to go public with what he knows.
Stone’s slant on Snowden’s story portrays this talented young computer genius as someone who has a conscience, a man of conviction who ultimately decides that what he’s participating in is morally wrong. If we take that portrayal of his convictions at face value, Snowden can be seen here as an example of someone willing to sacrifice a great deal in order to tell the truth, no matter what the cost to him personally might be. And the film suggests the personal cost he’s paid has been great indeed.
But is the depiction of Edward Snowden an accurate one? Is the sympathy Oliver Stone strives to stir up for his subject something we should embrace or something we should be suspicious of?
As in any complex, nuanced story, there are always at least two sides. Stone gives us just one of them here. Meanwhile, more than a few commentators—both in the government and in the political media—have suggested that the damage caused by Snowden’s revelations may have been as bad or worse than the unchecked excesses he sought to bring to light.
Are there true heroes and villains here? Or are there merely shades of grey on both sides? Oliver Stone insists Edward Snowden’s complicated, conscience-driven story is black and white, a clear cut case of David versus Goliath. I suspect the reality is murkier than the idealized portrait that Oliver Stone has given us in Snowden.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.