Snowden the Movie: A Review


By now, you’ve probably heard about Edward Snowden, the C.I.A. analyst turned classified-document dumping whistle-blower who now lives his life in Russia because he fears arrest by his own government – for exposing the illegal activities of said government. Perhaps you have watched Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning documentary, “Citizenfour,” filmed largely in the Hotel Mira back in 2013. If not, I would recommend it. Well, a new Oliver Stone movie out about Mr. Snowden is getting very mixed reviews. The long and short here; I’m going to recommend you watch it, but let me explain why.

I’m not one to hang on Hollywood for my information, but Oliver Stone always does a good job of portraying devil’s advocate, and Snowden’s story has always intrigued me, so I went to see it. Having been one that followed the events as they transpired, and after extensive research ever since, I must say that I have mixed feelings about the film.

In room 1014 at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong in 2013, Mr. Snowden met with Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewen MacAskill, the journalists who would eventually tell his story. The movie shows a backstory of his attempt and time with the Army, his C.I.A. acceptance and education even though he was not really college-educated, and the budding relationship with a very stressful and only somewhat supportive liberal girlfriend.

Yes, this film is exactly what you should expect out of an Oliver Stone film. Which is both good and bad, I suppose. However, I can only imagine that as the movie advances, one would have to begin to question some of the messages being portrayed. Is this accurate? Is this what Snowden really saw? I believe this is a very good thing, as there are still so many Americans who are simply unaware that such events ever took place. Was some of it portrayed to dramatic effect? Perhaps, but there are points delivered in solid form, even if you are unsure about what you are looking for. Could the movie have gone further? Absolutely! But if it did, I don’t think most people would believe it and would pass it off as art akin to something like Jason Bourne.

What I liked about this movie is that regardless of whether you agree with Snowden’s actions or not, the film effectively helps the viewer discover the immense, historically unprecedented, and illegal surveillance machine that the United States government has created. The movie does a great job of highlighting Snowden’s dismay and his reasons for acting. However, there are two sides to every story, and numerous reviews are expressing the two sides of this coin.

In fact, the Economist went as far as to paint Snowden with a nasty brush. Chris Inglis, former deputy director of the N.S.A. who was active during the incident, watched the film and has chimed in as well. Inglis said, “In the summer of 2013, we suffered a disastrous loss of our capabilities, so what I told the workforce was that they had every right to be angry, disappointed and possibly your hearts are broken … but you can’t afford that. Because you have to do your job, which is to keep people safe, at a time when your capabilities have been terribly undermined.

He went on to argue that Snowden was never an analyst and never had targeting authority and that the systems are not set up to be able to easily target domestic communications anyway. These points are somewhat irrelevant; unfortunately, those types of details are a he-said / she-said situation because the N.S.A. and government, in general, are not exactly transparent. However, the viewer can observe the obvious and use basic logic to come up with a logical conclusion on who and what is right.

Let’s be honest with ourselves; Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s mammoth electronic intelligence-gathering operations brought about much-needed exposure. The National Security Agency was harvesting huge swaths of online traffic — far beyond what had been disclosed — and was working directly with top internet companies to spy on certain people outside of constitutionally authorized boundaries. As you may or may not already know, such programs were secret prior to 2013. However, documents confirming the program’s existence were revealed specifically because of the leaks by Edward Snowden. So he obviously had the necessary access and knew enough about the programs to be concerned enough to inform the world. Remember that we are talking about a guy hired by the C.I.A. and the N.S.A., so the chances are pretty good that we are not talking about some ignorant anybody.

Furthermore, in 2015, a federal appeals court ruled that the telephone metadata collection program, under which the National Security Agency illegally and covertly gathered up millions of phone records on an ongoing daily basis, was illegal under the Patriot Act. This ruling came about specifically because of the leaks provided by Snowden. So it seems to me that if you believe in the Constitution and the rule of law, you must at least appreciate the essential rightness of Snowden’s actions while, at the same time, allowing the information to solidify the fact that the government is not always the most honest of organizations and willing to violate the Constitution in the name of more control. Ultimately, this provides credibility for Snowden, in my opinion.

And now, let’s really be honest with ourselves; this struggle continues to this very day. Several elements of these illegal programs are ongoing. Under the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, the government still had the authority to access the communications of users of internet websites such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. Under section 702 of the law (which does not expire until 2017), the government has the ability to collect the content of an internet user’s actual communications — not just metadata. Or how about Section 215 and the use of National Security Letters? This helped to expand the government’s ability to collect information about Americans directly from phone companies and internet providers. So basically, and in violation of the Constitution, any F.B.I. office could issue, without a court’s review and with a gag order, a demand for information.

In an article titled “A Gap in Surveillance, but Ways Around It” by The New York Times suggests that all three aspects of the law that recently expired “contained a so-called grandfather clause that permits their authority to continue INDEFINITELY for any investigation that had begun before June 1.” But think about that for a moment. As far as we know, everyone was under investigation, so exactly how far does that go? When you factor in acquaintances and connections, that pretty much puts everyone into that basket anyway.

The C.I.A., the F.B.I., and the N.S.A.; we continue to hear about the abuses. But it’s not just them. In January 2015, the D.E.A. revealed that it had been collecting metadata records we well. In April, U.S.A. Today reported that the D.E.A.’s data collection program began in 1992 and included ALL telephone calls between the United States and from Canada and Mexico. Current and former D.E.A. officials described the program as the precursor of the N.S.A.’s similar programs. And let’s pretend someone discovered a new violation. Does anyone have any faith that the F.B.I. would work on behalf of the people considering that they also allowed Clinton’s staffers to destroy evidence with impunity – and without recourse?

Perhaps we should be thankful that the Patriot Act is gone and that we now we have the U.S.A. Freedom Act. I’m kidding, of course. Unfortunately, the U.S.A. Freedom Act (“H.R. 2048”., Pub.L. 114–23) is the U.S. “feel good” law enacted on June 2, 2015, that restored several provisions of the Patriot Act. Again, there are ways around these things, and the intelligence community is doing just that. Of course, the problem with that is the fact that from the very beginning, the Patriot Act demonstrated extraordinary surveillance powers that were used to investigate political dissent and low-level offenses rather than terrorism. It’s a trend. Come to think of it, a 2007 report by the Inspector General of the Justice Department found “widespread and serious abuse” of authority by the F.B.I. under the Patriot Act. So are we supposed to assume that such abuses will cease considering that the law or your rights were never considered in the first place? I’m not getting my hopes up.

Why not? Because as I wrote this, Reuters broke a story stating that according to former employees at Yahoo, even as recent as last year, the company went along with a classified U.S. government directive, scanning hundreds of millions of Yahoo Mail accounts for the N.S.A. and F.B.I. In fact, they actually built a custom, secret software program to search all of their customer’s incoming emails, looking for specific information provided by U.S. intelligence officials. In other words, this is an ongoing problem, and it still falls outside of the constitutional mandate. These supposed “defenders of the constitution” could care less.

So is Snowden a traitor or a constitutional hero? Perhaps Snowden deserves the benefit of the doubt, considering that the only ones who really got hurt on this one were the ones who were actively breaking the law and who acted in complete violation of the Constitution. Yes, his critics justify the government’s actions because the Patriot Act was a law passed by our representation. However, I would retort with the idea that it was Chief Justice Marshall of the Supreme Court that said: “A Law repugnant to the Constitution is void.” Again, you cannot support, defend or exercise something you are unaware of.

The question remains: is this movie a good movie? Well, I guess that depends on why you are seeking to watch it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt did a fantastic job of embodying Edward, and you get lost in the character. The portrayal of the girlfriend frustrated me every bit as much as any conversation I’ve ever had with a liberal, so at least that is accurate. And ultimately, it got people in the theater talking and eager to research. So yeah, for me, it was a good movie. For you, I’ll just say it’s definitely worth a look, and you’ve definitely seen worse.