The SC Blog

Snowden film fails to shed light on essential questions

Oliver Stone's latest foray into political pseudo-documentary filmmaking presents a one-sided account of a formative moment in history.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden in Oliver Stone's latest crockumentary
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden in Oliver Stone's latest crockumentary

Whether Edward Snowden is a hero or a traitor is a question that will divide the cyber-security community for years to come.

On the one hand you have cyber-security professionals from various tech communities who say Snowden is a whistleblower who deserves our thanks.

On the other hand, you have current and former law enforcement and intelligence community professionals who believe that Snowden violated a sacred trust, jeopardised ongoing operations, endangered field agents and hamstrung the collection of vital intelligence.

There are reasonable people on both sides of the argument who would agree that the truth probably lies somewhere in between these two extremes, but even so, it's difficult to get them to agree where the balance lies.

One person who has no doubts that he is a hero is Oliver Stone, the director of the new film called simply, Snowden.

However, I recently conducted a video interview with Chris Inglis who was the deputy director of the NSA when Snowden was there. Inglis comes across as quite reasonable, and he conceded that Snowden's revelations have resulted in “a richer discussion”.

But, he said, that doesn't absolve Snowden of responsibility for what he did: “It turns out that along the way we sufficiently inflamed the debate with allegations that were not revelations, that we took a wild ride across a territory that was completely unhelpful, that we sowed a degree of distrust, mistrust between the NSA and the public that it serves, and frankly between the United States and allies that it collaborates with, that has been essentially the source of scar tissue that lives on to this day.”

He rejected the notion that the NSA had abused its authority but conceded that the restrictions that have been put in place – no thanks to Snowden, he said – would prevent such abuses from occurring in the future. “So I would say it this way: we have a new house, a better house than perhaps what we had before, but I give no credit to the arsonist. There was frankly a much better way to essentially encourage that sort of debate and impose perhaps some additional restrictions on what NSA does so that we have confidence that it will never abuse authorities that we have not yet seen it abuse.”

However, to his supporters, including the film's director Oliver Stone, Snowden is a hero and deserves the world's gratitude. They believe that Snowden acted with the purest of motives as did the journalists from the New York Times and The Guardian with whom he shared his story and any bias in portraying the story is justified to counter the oppression of official denial.

For the vast majority of people who are not privacy geeks and don't know the Snowden story in any detail, this will be their first exposure to the saga.

Unfortunately for the film, portraying them without flaws reduces them to cardboard cutouts, and otherwise excellent actors are forced to engage in clunky exposition masquerading as dialogue.  

The movie fails to shed any light on whether Snowden or the journalists considered the ethical issues raised, either in exposing the alleged overreach by the NSA or the negative impact that these revelations could conceivably have on international security.

Snowden and the journalists came across as a group caught up in the romance of the situation, playing at international espionage with little regard for the wider consequences of their actions.

There is a rather desperate attempt to humanise Snowden and play on the sympathies of the audience by weaving a romantic subplot into the story. However, his on-again, off-again romance does little to drive the plot forward and has no impact on the outcome, relegating his girlfriend to the status of a side-car.

The film doesn't even serve its supporters particularly well. It provides no great understanding of what drove Snowden to do what he did or how he felt about it. It was taken as a given that what he did was “a good thing”, an assumption that was not supported by the rather mechanical rehearsal of what are now historical events.

Given that Snowden is the only one giving us any real substance of what actually happened at the NSA – and his view is necessarily self-serving – the public may never know the whole truth. They certainly won't get it from this film.

However, one man with access to inside information and possessing excellent liberal and legal credentials, is President Obama. Asked if he would pardon Snowden, Obama said he would not even consider it unless Snowden presented himself before the US courts to answer the charges against him.

Obama said, “I think that Mr Snowden raised some legitimate concerns. [But] how he did it was something that did not follow the procedures and practices of our intelligence community. If everybody took the approach that I make my own decisions about these issues, then it would be very hard to have an organised government or any kind of national security system.”  

* Thank you to F-Secure for inviting me to the private screening of Snowden.