Review written by Karim Malak
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s lead role in Snowden is a dramatization of the documentary Citizen Four, a semi-autobiographical movie of Edward Snowden’s journey from his time as a CIA/NSA employee to private contractor to whistleblower who is forced to take exile in Russia. Snowden is quite the movie, though it is not a replacement of Citizen Four by any means. It is an interesting dramatization of Snowden’s journey that sheds light on his cause differently than perhaps Snowden would want.
The movie, for example, brings out some elements which Snowden himself presumably wanted left untouched. One example of this is the omission of his relationship with his girlfriend who is constantly and purposefully left out of his battles “for her safety”. Though Edward Snowden’s decision to leave her out of it, “for her protection” as he details in his documentary, is understandable, the movie teases out the tension resulting from his decision not to involve her in the form of the constant fights they have over his “odd” and “secretive” attitude as well as his paranoia. Other times it is more obvious, such as the moment Snowden decides to go off the grid in preparation for contacting journalists and going public about the US mass surveillance program of the world at large. Yet his girlfriend surprises him when he tells her she should go stay with her parents; she replies that if he is going to be gone it would only be noticed faster if she goes to her parents’ house. It turns out that she can think in the same way he does, and can come up with helpful suggestion. This form of comradery stands out as opposed to Snowden’s decision to go on his crusade alone with his patronizing attitude in order “to protect” his girlfriend. Perhaps had she known all along they could have shared more moments together, and perhaps she could have even helped Snowden where he least expected it. The movie – as opposed to the documentary – does a good job at problematizing the idea of the self-righteous genius whistle-blower on his lonely crusade.
Though the dramatization of the movie is sure to give away some of the documentary’s own zealous message, there are instances where it was worth it. In the documentary it is made clear that the system is rigged in favor of the government’s decision to spy on the whole world. In the movie there is a patriotic element to the CIA that engages in a lesser of two evils argument that supports preemptive mass surveillance in order to prevent the next 9/11; this of course makes it seem like the US does not have an imperial agenda of its own. Yet what was welcome, however, was the dramatization of the inaccessible technical details of the mass surveillance program in the documentary. This was achieved through a climactic scene when Snoweden is having sex with his girlfriend and he notices her laptop is still open with the front camera pointed towards them. He is aggravated and is reminded of that spying program that taps into devices and turns them on to use their camera and microphone, while mimicking that the device is still closed.
Another interesting dramatization was the portrayal of the labyrinth bureaucratization of spying on the entire world. The viewer gets a sense of how these genius programmers go about their lives, spying on any unsuspecting victim they target. It casts this act of spying as banal and day-to-day; one sees the ‘bro’ with his mullet hair, goatee and cargo pants walk around normally on a US military base designed solely to spy, the US base being the Kunia Regional Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) Operations center in Hawai. This sense of day-to-day regularity of such an intrusive job is not without complication; at a barbeque party an interesting discussion plays out where these spy-bureaucrats reflect on their job. One begins talking about how he was disturbed to know when he was running technical support mission to a drone strike in the Middle East, it turned out that the successful ‘hit’ actually took the lives of innocent village dwellers. This results in a discussion of whose fault it is, and whether these technicians have any responsibility, at which point a toy drone at the barbeque malfunctions and begins to descend rapidly. Snowden, who throughout the entire discussion was nervous and sweating, falls and has a seizure when the drone hits the ground. The parallel of Snowden experiencing this sort miniature version of a drown strike helps the viewer appreciate the point that these bureaucrats are not without responsibility. Technology fails.
While the movie is Hollywood’s version of Snowden’s odyssey, it is nonetheless worth seeing, if only for Congress’s attempt to halt its screening by releasing the first glimpse into the investigation of the fallout from Snowden’s revelations one day before the movie’s opening.