Film Review: Snowden

by Aaron Johnstone

Rated M. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo. Directed by Oliver Stone.

Big Brother. Wikileaks. X-Files. 9/11 Conspiracy Theories. Donald Trump.

Whether fictional or reality, there is always a level of intrigue concerning the shroud of mystery around top level government agencies and intelligence. Scepticism and a general mistrust of Western governments continues to grow, with many disillusioned and some even genuinely scared of what the future might hold. Is it right to adopt these sorts of views and attitudes? Should we be questioning our authorities in modern times, when life is so good? We have iPhones and the internet, and it’s democracy, man! Well, history has proven again and again that no form of government is perfect and that citizens can be exploited by the very people entrusted with serving and protecting them. And the movie Snowden gives a chilling account of what real life government agencies might actually be doing with our phones and Internet browsing habits.

Snowden re-lives the true story of Edward Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) – a former high-ranking official in American intelligence units, now declared a notorious whistleblower and enemy of the American government – who took it upon himself to let the American people, and the world, know what they have been up to. He now lives exiled in Russia, accused of violating the Espionage Act and faces at least 30 years in prison, should he return without pardon. The film zooms in on Snowden’s life from 2004 up until 2013, when he infamously leaked highly classified documents to the world, from his hotel room in Hong Kong.

The movie starts with a Rubik’s cube being twisted and solved by a wandering stranger. This, of course, is to be the telltale sign for a small team of journalists awaiting their meeting with a mysterious ex-CSA/NSA agent who is putting his life at risk even meeting with them, if people were to know what he was about to do. After immediately introducing us to the hours before the leak, Snowden takes us back to the past to show us how this man of mystery got to that point. Snowden as a fresh-faced student is a fierce patriot with conservative leanings, incredible computer programming skills, and a natural inkling for solving highly complex problems and situations. Snowden enlists in the army, but is discharged in less than six months after breaking both his legs in an unfortunate training accident at his military base in 2004. Before long he is hired by the CIA, and he begins to see how far America will go to provide security in these dangerous times where ‘the modern battlefield is everywhere’.

As Snowden climbs the ranks, and becomes more and more involved in covert operations, he finds his political allegiances and convictions frequently being challenged, and his conscience becoming more and more fragile with each new project. Unable to fully trust those inside, and unable to divulge classified information to anyone outside (including his girlfriend) he finds himself more and more isolated, conflicted, and confused, saying ‘sometimes the more you look the less you see’. At a party it dawns on him that he, and others around him, are on a certain trajectory, and now is the time to turn back. After a particularly sobering discussion about the Nuremberg trials, it becomes clear what he must do. He begins to confront his superiors and mentors, but Snowden disappointingly finds that they do not share the same concerns that he does about the intelligence agencies and their secret data collection and surveillance of everyone’s entire Internet history. Not just Americans, but anyone with access to the Internet. Every text message, every file on their computer, everything you thought was private or had deleted. Everyone has something to hide, and these intelligence agencies have the power to expose and ruin lives.

We come to see that the US government have at their disposal more than simply military might, but the ability to exhibit a level of control and influence never seen before. Complete economic and social control of the world. One of the most memorable scenes of the movie has Snowden talking to one of his superiors through a video link. The screen is an entire wall (think of Skyping someone on an iMax cinema screen), and the superior’s enormous head casts Snowden as pitifully small and unable to influence anything. He says to Snowden ‘secrecy is security, and security is victory’. Snowden then takes it on himself to let the people know what’s going on. They have a right to know.

Snowden forces you to think of two forms of evil. The first being the powers of this world, and what they are capable of. The second being the evil within. We all have something to hide and the Bible often mentions our evil deeds being exposed and brought to light. What secrets do you have?

Jesus, says that ‘everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed’ (John 3:20). We all have something to hide, but followers of Jesus can be comforted to know that it’s not a sinister and crooked government looking to expose us, but the God of the Universe that we should fear the most. Why is that a comfort you might ask? H. L. Mencken once spoke of Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy” and I’m sure many feel that way about God. But, rather than being a controlling dictator who wants to interfere in people’s personal lives, is loving, just, merciful, the very definition of goodness and he is the light. God shows his love through Jesus, and gives the opportunity for forgiveness. All our evil deeds are wiped from the record. All we need to do is confess our evil to God, and trust that Jesus has forgiven us, and it can be dealt with – perfectly and finally. Snowden reflects that when he made his decision he ‘lost a life, but gained a new one’ and that is exactly what the Christian experiences when he or she trusts in Jesus Christ as their saviour. I found Snowden to be a sobering reminder of the reality of evil in this world, but even more the reality of God’s radical forgiveness and promise to make all things new.

The Verdict: I really enjoyed watching Snowden. It will make you feel uncomfortable because it’s true, but that’s exactly what the truth should do when it inconveniently confronts us. Levitt shows off his versatility and masterfully plays Edward Snowden. There is an array of memorable scenes, lines and cameos and the tail end of the movie does a great job of bringing to life a complex and important story we face with the advent of the internet, without losing its pace or tension built up throughout the rest of the movie. You can see why this has been such a controversial movie in America, and it will be interesting to see the public’s reaction over the coming weeks, and whether Edward Snowden goes down as a villain or hero for exposing the exposers, at least those who hold that power for the moment. 4.5/5

Snowden releases in US this Friday 16th September, and in Australia on Thursday, September 22nd.

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