Snowden, Director Oliver Stone. B+. Film Review.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley as Snowden and Mills.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley as Snowden and Mills.

There is a Snowden documentary Citizen Four  by Laura Poitras and Snowden the drama (trailer) by Oliver Stone. Stone is a highly skilled director and screenwriter who has won Oscars for his films. He wrote the screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald while the documentary stars Edward Snowden in person the film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden with Shailene Woodley as Lindsey Mills, his life partner (apparently they never formally married although they have been together for a long time).

The main difference between the documentary and the film is that Stone humanizes  Snowden and shows the events that led up to his decision to go public with classified documents that he believes reveal that the government  is illegally spying on its own citizens.

As opposed to dumping the data unedited on the internet Snowden chooses to go public through a responsible liberal news organization located in Great Britain named The Guardian that will edit names and other unnecessary but dangerous facts. When writer Glen Greenwald( Zachary Quinto), Laura Poitas documentary film maker (Melissa Leo) and Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) an editor of the Guardian meet with Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel named Mira the movie unfolds from their discussions with flash backs in his life  that lead up to his disclosure of classified programs designed to spy not just on hostile foreigners but everyone in the world that communicates by cell phone or computer.

The first flash back is of Snowden as a volunteer in training for the Special Forces which he is forced to leave because of a broken leg and other sub fractures. This apparently was to show his patriotism and loyalty to the United State and the principles for which it stands. The picture moves back and forth between the discussions in the hotel and Snowden’s life events. He meets Lindsey Mills on line while he is in the hospital recovering and learns he will be discharged from the Army for medical reasons. She is a young liberal and an amateur photographer.  Her life style, which is open and unconcerned about her on line profile as most young people her age are, is juxtaposed by Snowden’s increasing knowledge and concern  that the most private details of all American lives is being collected and stored. He is aware of the FISA court’s secret and classified alleged oversight of the NSA and the CIA’s activities in data collection is a thin excuse for constitutionality.  He is also aware that the spy agencies  get their warrant requests  rubber stamped and even  this procedure is often by passed.

He applies after discharge to the CIA and despite the fact  he doesn’t have a high school diploma he is accepted into computer training by Corbin O’Brien a CIA officer  (Rys Ifans) who is impressed with his intelligence and computer skills. O”Brien seeing his potential becomes his mentor and career guide.

Snowden is stationed in Switzerland but is “D-ROGED” by his supervisor for exceeding his authority. This is normally is a career ender but O’Brien has him moved to the field branch where he becomes disillusioned with an operation to compromise an otherwise innocent Pakistani Banker. He resigns his post and returns to the United States with Lindsey. They are happier back in Maryland but Snowden conscious of his superior computer skills feels compelled to use them in what he believes as defending the United States. He comes from a family with a distinguished record of service in the U.S. military. His grandfather, an admiral, was assigned to the Pentagon on 9/11 but unhurt.

Slowly he concludes that the Bush Government is acting unconstitutionally against its own people but with his association with Lindsey and when Obama is elected president he hopes things will be corrected.

However he learns that we are depositing sleeper programs in most  of the World’s computer systems which would enable the shut down of their vital infrastructures on command. Also, he sees drone strikes on people talking on cell phones believed to be in the hands of terrorists. He is offended by the casualness of the drone commands activities which take innocent lives along with terrorist lives. He has been assigned to an intelligence contractor in Hawaii and is living a comfortable suburban life with Lindsey but he is aware the government’s activities remained unchanged.

He aware that past complainers or whistleblowers have been demoted or have been isolated in non-essential posts and at least on one occasion a frustrated whistleblower has gone to the press and was then prosecuted under the Espionage Act which only provides for a secret closed trial in which a  verdict of guilty is preordained. He suffers from epilepsy and the pressures of his job cause him to stop taking his anti-seizure medicine so he can more effective. It also makes him more susceptible to seizures.

The final straw comes when he sees the Director Of National Intelligence, James Clapper, in testimony before Congress testify under oath that the intelligence agencies are not wittingly collecting data on U.S. citizens within the country which Snowden knows  to be incorrect.

He then gets permission to index all spy programs into a program he designs called Heartbeat. He downloads this information on a chip and goes to a pre-planned meeting with the journalists. He hopes to gain asylum in Ecuador but his passport  was revoked while en-route in Moscow where he remains today.

This picture is designed to show Snowden as an intelligent, conscientious, normal human rather than a cold, stoic egghead without a life and nothing to lose by his actions is cinematically excellent, the acting is superb and the story is well told. It got lukewarm reviews from the “mainline” critics who pander  to the horror, comic book audience which constitutes their readership. However it is an intelligent film well done and deserves better from these critics who should  be leading instead of following.

At present Snowden supporters are seeking a pardon or a public trial on lesser charges. However the sentiments of the bureaucracy is summed up at the end by Gen. Michael Hayden former head of the NSA  saying “He’ll die in Moscow.”




This film starring Benedict Cumberbatch and directed by Bill Condon (Gods And Monsters, Kinsey) is a comment on the impact of the internet on traditional means of communication. It also paces itself as if to emulate the speed of communication in the internet age by narrative and jump cutting to reflect the  fast changing set of circumstances and relationships. It is shot in desaturated color giving it a nourish look. The film is based on two books critical of Assange by David Leigh of the Guardian and Daniel Domscheit-Berg,   Assanges one time second in command. The  fast moving film is shot in a semi-docudrama style with excellent performances by Cuberbatch (Assange), Daniel Bruhl (Domscheit-Berg), Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney (U.S. Diplomats), Alexander Siddig (Libyan informant) and others. The main conflict in the film is between Assange and Berg over what is Wikileaks moral responsibility to persons who may be killed or severely damaged as a result of the release of unredacted leaks without an assessment of the truth or falsity of the leak or the leakers motive.

The film labels Assange a megalomaniac who is indifferent to the consequences to innocent parties of the information distributed by his website.   It shows two informants assassinated in Africa over matters they leaked. Then it gets to the main crux of the film: the massive data release by the then Bradley Manning. It is in parts redacted and published in the Guardian, N.Y. Times, Der Spiegel and other newspapers as well as on the Wikileaks website which posts some parts unredacted.  Notably the candid diplomatic cables.

Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney play two American diplomatic officers who expereince the consequences of the cables  to themselves, American diplomacy and its undercover agents around the world whose lives are put in jeopardy. (To date no loss of life has been identified and the two African informants who are assassinated in the film appear to be fictional.)

One of Assange’s alleged core principles is not to edit the anonymous leaks received and to put them out there regardless of the consequences. Another is, truth is more important than the lives of those involved. He believes once you start to edit the leaks you become a censor and then  where will it stop. (Which raises the question is Wikileaks just a facilitator or a journalistic publisher with Constitutional rights. It is never raised properly or answered by the film.)

The narrative of the film loses its way when it says Assange was taken as a child into an Australian cult with severe disciplinary rules for children and the requirement that their hair be dyed white. It alleges he escaped with his mother and spent much of his childhood and youth running from the cult known as the Family. This, it is inferred, is the cause of his allegedly flawed persona.  Anyway whether the allegations are true or not it is a cheap character assasination and detracts from the main thrust of the film; that Assange is an idealistic ego maniac indifferent to the consequences of  Wikileaks posts. The other side of the coin is whether his acts are those of an idealist trying to expose criminal conduct by governments and large business entities. The film fatally dismisses the latter possibility with the personal attack. Apparently Assange believes untrue leaks will fail by themselves  if the film states the first two principles correctly.

Allegedly without the Manning leak, including the infamous Bagdad Apache helicopter attack, and the subsequent, simultaneous publication and validation by the Guardian and other main stream newspapers Wikileaks would be two relatively unknown guys with a server according to the film never rising to a serious problem for the great powers. This is hard to swallow since the helicopter attack was released with out the aid of the Guardian or others and achieved international notoriety very quickly

The Guardian journalists, one of whom is Leigh (who is  publishing a new book simultaneously with the film) tell Assange, after the publication of the Manning data,  intelligence agencies around the world will smear his reputation. The film doesn’t touch on the Swedish problem and ends with  Domscheit-Berg leaving Wiklileaks and disabling the reception platform for the anonymous leaks. All this leaves us with the impression that Assange is a lonely man imprisoned in the London Ecuadorian Embassy.  It is silent on Assange’s role  in the Snowden affair or the fact that apparently his support group was instrumental in securing Snowden’s asylum in Russia. It is also silent on the significance of the fact that Snowden went first to the Guardian for publication of his leak.

The film leaves one wondering if it is another smear against Assange and who benefits by it. It doesn’t appear to be a search for truth.