The films of Oliver Stone have always been characterized by two features: moral passion and narrative power. His best work manages to balance these two qualities flawlessly. Salvador (1986), Wall Street (1987), Platoon (1986), Natural Born Killers 1989), and JFK (1991) all shared these features, along with a tendency to weave elements of his own personal history into some of his movies. At times his moral passion has gotten the better of him, and threatened to derail otherwise promising pictures: Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Alexander (2004), Heaven and Earth 1993), and World Trade Center (2006) all were handicapped to some extent by well-meaning preachiness.
But even on his bad days, Stone belongs on that very, very short list of American movie directors that really matter in the modern age. Even if Stone had stopped working in 1992, for example, after the release of JFK, his stature would have been secure for generations. Who can doubt that Platoon was not only the greatest war film ever made, but ranks among the greatest films of any genre ever made? We can’t always have it our way: we have to accept Stone’s vision for what it is, and remind ourselves that artistic genius makes its own rules.
It would have been surprising if Stone had not wanted to tell the Edward Snowden story on film. It has all the qualities that he loves: a man confronted with a difficult moral problem, the need to rebel against an oppressive system, and the unfolding of an international drama of conspiratorial intensity.
But Stone is surprisingly restrained: he does not beat us over the head with his message, but simply lets his character’s life tell its own tale. That tale may not be as familiar to audiences as we might think. We follow Snowden’s early years as a reservist and a special forces candidate; physical problems prevented him from completing the course, but he was able to find an outlet for his interests by pursuing a career in computing.
Various jobs in US government intelligence agencies followed. Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the elusive Snowden flawlessly, with just the right combination of frail vulnerability and seething moral outrage. We follow Snowden’s progression in stages: the idealistic computer warrior gradually has seeds of doubt planted in his mind as he realizes the full extent of the NSA’s surveillance. Over time, this doubt gives way to anger, and from then the decision is made to act.
What Stone does well is to explain exactly what it is that Snowden disclosed. Without going into all the technical details, the end result of the NSA’s programs (PRISM, Quantum, XKeyScore, etc.) was essentially to collect everything on everyone. The so-called “FISA courts” were nothing but rubber-stamps who never saw a request they denied. It is hard to watch a film like this without feeling a deep sense of outrage that things could have come to this point, and perhaps that is Stone’s whole point: unless we become aware of what is happening, no steps can be taken to rein in the threats to our privacy and personal identity.
Stone makes short shrift of the standard arguments in favor of the metadata collection programs: “It’s a new world and we have to do this. The threats can come from anywhere. Those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear.” But authoritarian governments in every age have always made these arguments. More than anything else, Snowden demolishes these comfortable illusions and shows us just how false these delusional premises really are. In the modern age, it seems that the threat is not just to our privacy, but to our very freedom of will.
This is not escapist entertainment, but a true rarity in modern cinema: a big-budget film that can generate philosophical debate on the issues that penetrate the heart of modern man’s identity. And these are not really “new” questions. It is easy to forget that being free from unwanted intrusions in our lives has been a feature of the American identity since the founding of the nation.
The little-known Third Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits the quartering of soldiers in the homes of citizens. This amendment was born at least in part by the deeply offensive Quartering Acts that were passed by Parliament in the 1760s and 1770s, whereby American colonists were compelled to accept the presence of soldiers in their homes.
At least implicit in the Third Amendment is the idea that US citizens have a fundamental right to be free of unwanted violations of their privacy and personal spaces. If so, the NSA’s surveillance programs cut to the heart of what the Constitution is supposed to stand for. Seen in this light, Snowden is nothing less than a hero and a patriot for exposing the rotten core of modern authoritarianism, as well as the anti-terrorist lies that it hides behind. Snowden reminds us that the individual has the power, by making use of his own conscience, to shape the course of events. But there is a steep price to be paid.
The film is crafted with great care. Stone interviewed Snowden in Russia in 2014 in preparation for the film, but he had no input into the script and received no payment for the movie. Ultimately, Stone also bought the rights to two books written by participants in the Snowden affair, and based his screenplay on that material. Filming was difficult: few American companies wanted to participate in the project for obvious reasons, and budget constraints meant that most of the filming had to take place in Europe.
But the end result here is a marvelous piece of work. Entirely lacking in the polemical tone of some of Stone’s work in the 1980s and 1990s, this is the assured, confident product of a mature mind. As his great film Wall Street taught us, there are no short-cuts to being a good man, and nothing good can come from moral corruption. And as the view leaves the theater, he is reminded that, for all the advances in technology that have occurred since the days of Cicero, the nature of man has not changed.
Our efforts to gain total “security” at the expense of our privacy and freedom of will always come to nothing, because the desired end is itself morally wrong. We have never yet been able to improve on Cicero’s counsel to us that “nothing can be expedient that is not also morally good.” And this remains the most enduring lesson of all.
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