MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Directed by Oliver Stone. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley.
To this day, the jury is still out in the court of public opinion concerning Edward Snowden (Gordon-Levitt). A former CIA operative, he leaked classified information to the world in 2013 that showed the United States National Security Agency’s illegal surveillance of thousands of American citizens. Snowden remains a political refugee in Russia, since returning to America will likely lead to imprisonment and potential trial as a traitor.
Is Snowden a patriot or a turncoat? In the spy business, dirty tricks and wiretapping are par for the course and the release of false information is often used as leverage to intimidate the other side. Snowden uses the format of a traditional biopic to show us the story of a brilliant young man who develops a crisis of conscience as he slowly realizes that the profession that challenges and provokes his intellectual curiosity and creativity is also requiring him to sell his soul.
Writer-director Oliver Stone, one of our most politically liberal filmmakers, shows surprising restraint in telling Snowden’s story. I would argue that this film is actually very even-handed and that folks from both sides of the political spectrum could come up with reasons to either praise or vilify Snowden. President Obama was no friend of Snowden’s initial media exposure of state secrets, although he has initiated a few corrective measures since then. Conservatives are outraged. The only public figure shown in the film with something good to say about Snowden is Senator Bernie Sanders.
What I find most admirable about Edward Snowden is his self-awareness that his actions put his own life in jeopardy, accompanied by his concern that the journalists who report his story also risk censure. To this day, Snowden is considered to be a criminal by many; he may never be allowed to reenter the country. Snowden is no Christ figure, but his story reminded me of Jesus’ tangles with those in political power who threatened him with arrest and crucifixion when his message became too uncomfortable.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a great job capturing the spirit of Snowden and the large cast (especially Rhys Ifans as Snowden’s boss/mentor Corbin O’Brian) is well used. The one character that fails to connect is Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Woodley), who is written to be a catalyst for Snowden’s moral development rather than as a character with a clear story arc of her own. Their romance is not helped by the jumps in time between their scenes together.
Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (portrayed here by Melissa Leo) made an incredible film with Snowden that shows his release of classified information to the media as it happened in real time. That film is Citizenfour, which I reviewed in 2014 and highly recommend as a companion piece to Snowden. (It is available on Blu-Ray and DVD and for rent online.)
Regardless of whether you find Snowden to be a pinhead or a patriot, the key dilemma of his life is ours as well. If doing the right thing cost you everything, would you still follow through? What is truth?
Four halos: The story of a controversial public figure is also a meditation on the cost of conscience.
Two pitchforks: Pervasive strong swearing; brief nudity; scene of sexual activity; drone warfare; deception and lies (that’s espionage for you.)
"Snowdon had channels of objection like we all do. His impatience led him to becoming a traitor."
- Barry Dunn, Sunbury UM Church, Parishoner
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
COMMENTS! Do you have comments about this movie or movie review?
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