***Real events, so spoilers do not apply***
This film had slipped past my radar, so I was happy to find it showing on our free film channel, Film 4.
Many of us remember the case of Edward Snowden, perhaps the most significant whistle-blower in history. His story filled the news for a while, as he tried to escape arrest and extradition to the USA for trial on charges of treason. This film from distinguished director Oliver Stone examines Snowden’s background, his various jobs in the CIA and NSA, and his personal reasons for leaking the huge amount of secret information to the world’s media.
I appreciate that for many people, especially Americans, his actions are unforgivable, and he is still regarded as a wanted criminal, currently living in exile in Moscow. However, Stone’s long and detailed look at his life presents us with a different view of Snowden, and his slow journey to disillusionment after a career in the clandestine agencies of the American government.
Snowden was always a conservative, and a patriot; he joined the army to train for Special Forces, completely believing in the duty of America to maintain world order, and protect the freedoms it claims to stand for. Self-taught, with no college degree, he became an expert in computers too, with a genius level on a par with the best. After a serious accident during his army training, he is told he will be discharged as medically unfit. Still desperate to serve his country, he applies for a job as an analyst with the CIA, and is successful. He is immediately noticed for his talent, and completes training as the top student.
Whilst in Washington DC, he meets Lindsey, a free-spirited liberal woman who becomes his girlfriend. That on-off relationship and the difficulties his job places on it become a large part of the film too. But we are mainly shown some fascinating behind the scenes details of just how the ‘system’ works. In collusion with the British spymasters at GCHQ, the CIA begins to monitor email, webcam, and cellphone communication around the world, in any country they choose. Using the justification of the 9/11 attacks, laws and constitutional issues are overturned in favour of the dream of complete surveillance of everyone on the planet. Nothing is beyond their reach, and I mean NOTHING.
This is where the film scored highly for me, with its detailed look at just how vast that network became, with the technical aspects clearly explained for the viewer, though breathtaking in their scale. Despite the convoluted machinations of the agencies concerned, I never felt overwhelmed by tech-speak, or failed to understand exactly what Snowden was a part of. Use of flashbacks dealt with numerous back-stories in a clear and concise way, with on-screen graphics quickly grounding the viewer in time and place. With his work for the CIA beginning to trouble him, he resigns, but eventually starts work at the NSA, as a contractor. Once there, he finds that the scale of the interference in people’s lives is increasing exponentially, and he resolves to do something about it.
Breaking all the rules, and his oath of secrecy, he copies an enormous amount of top secret information onto an SD card, and flees to Hong Kong, where he contacts a film-maker, a TV journalist, and The Guardian newspaper. The secrets are eventually revealed, as we all remember, and every country in the world carries the story in great detail. Snowden tries to escape to political asylum in Ecuador, but when his passport is revoked by John Kerry, he is stranded in Moscow, where he still resides to this day. It was hoped that the arrival of Barack Obama as president would overturn much of the shady dealings of the intelligence agencies. But when he decided to let them continue ‘In the interests of security’, all of Snowden’s efforts came to nothing.
The film has an excellent cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is superb as Snowden, and totally believable. Welsh actor Rhys Ifans impresses as one of the top CIA trainers, and Nicholas Cage plays against type as a world-weary code-breaker. Filmed mostly in Europe and Hong Kong, for obvious reasons, locations feel convincing, and despite a long running time, it had my attention from start to finish. This is an important film about a serious subject, and something we should all try to inform ourselves about.
And you won’t leave your laptop open after watching this, I assure you.