Our film begins in Hong Kong. Will this be hagiography or biography?
Snowden waits in a hotel lobby for journalist contacts. Glenn Greenwald is played by Spock from Star Trek. Snowden approaches flipping a Rubik’s cube, like some god-tier nerd. They have a coded exchange to confirm identities. Snowden leads the journalists up to a posh hotel room. Joseph Gordon Levitt doing a serviceable impression of Snowden’s voice. Snowden wants their cellphones and throws them into a microwave. Smart.
Greenwald/Spock begins interviewing Snowden wanting to know how has access to such explosive information. Snowden gives his credentials. CIA, NSA, etc. He works with computers, so he says.
Fort Benning, Georgia (School of the Assassins, incidentally)
Snowden wants to be in spesh forces. Well, who doesn’t? There are various scenes of his military training. Drill Sgt. is furious at Snowden’s struggling with basic PT. Snowden breaks his leg jumping down from his top bunk during a morning drill. He’s out of commission for life. No more running around trying to be a Spec Ops badass. Those days are over. Those dreams are dead. Sorry son.
Snowden is all up in his computer running some nerdy software, but he’s also chatting with a babe he met online dating. She will become important later. He gets a lie detector test from the CIA where he is applying for a job. They ask him some right-wing questions. “Do you believe The United States is the greatest country in the world?” Crazy questions like that. Snowden’s credentials are run down by a spook who is looking to hire him. Snowden tests well, this much is obvious. But he’s a little soft. “Why do you want to join the CIA?” The man asks him. Instead of breaking out into some Whiffenpoof song Snowden replies lamely: “It would be really cool to have top security clearance.” It doesn’t look like he’s going to get the job. BUT it turns out that what they’re looking for is not some bleeding from his ears patriot but instead merely an aptitude for computer wizardry. You’re hired Mr. Snowden.
Corbin O’Brien is the man who hires Snowden personally and it turns out he will be leading whatever team it is that the CIA wants him to work on. Snowden goes to a “CIA Training Center,” in Virginia to learn the ropes. Nicolas Cage appears (bloated and uninterested) in a really weak cameo as a voice of reason in the clandestine world of the CIA. His line is that the military-industrial complex is really in charge and the pursuit of profit is the motivating force behind all that goes on in the world of intelligence. That’s pretty much it.
Snowden is first tasked along with other noobie recruits to build a mock computer program that can do surveillance on a city. The average test time is five hours. Eight and you fail the quiz. Snowden blows right through the test like a champion of all things computer in forty minutes. “What should I do now?” asks Snowden. “Whatever you want,” O’Brien replies. Snowden is off to the races. You move up fast if you are handy with the 1’s and 0’s.
The romance subplot kicks in. The girl Snowden was chatting with at the hospital turns out to be the supremely fetching but slightly shrill Shailene Woodley. Woodley has a keen eye and blows through Snowden’s lies about his job. She’s a Beltway gal. She knows Langley is the one filling his dish.
Now some humanizing, black and white still photographs of Snowden looking boyish and innocent paired with shots of the U.S. Capitol and D.C.’s monuments. It’s like a commercial for Barack Obama produced by PBS if you can imagine. Pretty much.
The War in Iraq is raging and there are people signing up souls for a petition. Snowden won’t sign it not because he’s working for the CIA and they would poke him with pokers if he did, but instead because he says he respects George W. Bush and what he’s about. “The liberal media” is no good to Snowden. He claims to be a conservative. His girlfriend is not impressed by his right-leaning opinions. “Tastes like a liberal” he says when she kisses him. Snowden is a John Bircher at this point.
Back to Langley.
O’Brien brandishes the NY Times. The FISA court bitches. They issue warrants based on suspicion. They are classified decisions so as not to alert the enemies. Very dodgy and politicized. Or at least it has the potential to be. Moving on.
Nicolas Cage gives the rundown on capitalism being the root of all evil. “Military contractors man…they use the technology willy nilly…” What really sets the agenda is ‘military-industrial happiness management. Keep the money flowing to the contractors’” etc.
This little tirade has literally nothing to do with the film and our assessment of Snowden’s choices. Unless you think he got brain raped by some crackpot professor, which is possible.
O’Brien has taken a shine to Snowden. They have a burgeoning relationship. But Snowden wants to know whether there is an informational dragnet that scoops up information on lots of people and not just people the government is specifically looking at. But O’Brien shrugs off his query. He says terrorism is a short term threat….the real baddies are China, Russia and other more sophisticated (in cyberspace) entities. Iraq is a “horse shit war over sand and oil.” So that’s where he’s coming from.
Back to the hotel room in Hong Kong. More journalists are descending on Snowden’s hotel room. This one from The Guardian. He’s skeptical of Snowden but Snowden shows him some convincing documentation.
“How will the government respond once you reveal your identity” asks the journalist.
“They’ll charge me under the Espionage Act best case or they’ll torture me if the media doesn’t shine the light”, says Snowden.
Snowden hands over a computer drive he says is about GCHQ — a British intelligence service.
Snowden spooks the journalists by saying they are all in some deep shit when the authorities find out what he’s up to.
The Guardian newspaper says it is interested in publishing Snowden’s data despite the risks.
Snowden first shows the journalists a program called “X-Keyscore.” It’s a program used to search for whatever you can think of.
Snowden works at a diplomatic mission, obviously a cover for his CIA work.
Snowden is itching to get out in the field. I guess he’s tired of his computer stuff. Anyway, he wants to see some action, goddamn it.
He runs into another computer nerd. This one who works for the NSA. This guy is a character. He wants to show off some of his chops and some of the programs, search engines, what have you, that he has access to. He has access to a powerful secret search engine that can comb through basically the entire internet. To do what? In this case to find anyone who has threatened the United States president. The search engine finds some nuts writing on message boards, but it also gets into people’s GCHAT. “Emails, chats, SMS, whatever.” “Which people?” “The whole kingdom, Snow White,” says the dude. Right. So EVERYONE!!!!
Snowden wants field experience. But what does that mean? It means cultivating bankers, evidently. They are the gatekeepers for everything. Terrorism is the interest in this case. “Do you know any bankers?” Snowden asks his girlfriend who is his date at a swanky party.
Anyway, he ends up meeting a banker who MIGHT have terrorist connections. But anyway. Bankers? I knew they were up to something! But I digress.
Snowden cultivates a banker who seems like an OK gent. He throws him a lame story about losing money in the market. The guy is Pakistani but he doesn’t have any contacts to their intelligence networks (ISI) or anything. He’s pretty clean. But they are trying to cultivate an asset and rules will have to be broken.
The NSA computer dude from earlier says they can trawl through the banker’s family connections to see if there is anything there they can use to pressure the guy. In the process, the NSA dude shows Snowden a program where the NSA can look through the camera on your computer at you. They even have the ability to turn the camera on and off. So the most obvious fact in the world is somehow shocking to Edward Snowden. The most obvious shit that ever happened gets his attention. There is some leering at a woman through the switched on laptop camera. Boys will be boys.
The NSA guy says the FISA court is “a big-ass rubber stamp” and continues blowing Snowden’s mind by showing him how they can spy on regular Americans as well as potential adversaries. “FISA judges are all appointed by the Chief Justice who’s like, you know, Darth Vader when it comes to national security.”
The banker is in bed with Russian billionaires and Saudi money but nothing criminal. But still, the CIA is blissed out that Snowden is cultivating someone with access to so much money.
The CIA wants to compromise the banker further by getting him arrested for drunk driving. But Snowden doesn’t have the stomach for that. The field is way too mean for Snowden.
The NSA guy wasn’t supposed to show Snowden all of those programs though. And it’s hanging over his head like an albatross. What will Langley do if they find out he’s been utilizing secret NSA programs he’s not supposed to have access to?
Barack Obama is running for president and promising the world. We won’t do illegal wiretaps and so forth. Whatever it takes to get elected. You know the drill with that guy.
But Snowden believes Obama’s rhetoric because he’s a tad stupid. Maybe he’ll reform the intelligence community? Probably not though, Edward. Probably not.
Anyway, Snowden resigns from the CIA. Why? Because he couldn’t stomach field ops or because he’s paranoid about accessing things he shouldn’t have? It’s unclear.
Obama wins the presidency. That dark day. We all remember and mourn it.
Back to Hong Kong. The journalists are nervous because of some of the documents. They want to publish what they have now because they think the White House is going to come down on them and keep it out of the major newspapers.
But it’s a wait-and-see situation. Will the lawyers shut them down? If so, they will publish in less reputable formats.
Japan now. Snowden is back working for the government. He’s working on back up systems in case of attacks coming across Asia or The Middle East. Snowden is privy to the fact that the Japanese are under a massive surveillance umbrella, like in The United States. The NSA is slipping “sleeper programs” into major infrastructure networks in Japan so they can shut down the country if it ever gets obstreperous presumably about getting whipped in 1945. How that is going to happen with Marines there is beyond me. But that’s what they did evidently. Snowden is blown away by just how much surveillance they’re doing globally — on people, corporations, militaries, you name it. “This is about economic and social control. All you’re protecting is the supremacy of your government,” says Snowden.
Snowden expresses disappointment that Obama hasn’t reformed the agencies. Now he gets tasked with terrorism watch duty. He’s spying on a lot of Americans as part of this work. There is a long description of how this spying draws in so much “meta-data” which is just the flotsam and jetsam of the internet with anything connected to people. And this is horribly disturbing to Snowden. He’s sitting in the catbird seat for sure. The NSA is tracking every phone call IN THE WORLD. We’re all sitting in a database. All the stupid things we do online. THEY’RE SAVING IT ALL!
The home fires are burning low for Edward Snowden. It’s eating him up all this power at his fingertips. He and his girlfriend get into a fight because she’s keeping nudes of herself on her hard drive. Snowden thinks maybe they could be used against her somehow? Use your imagination I guess. Anyway, he and his girlfriend hit the skids. His girlfriend leaves him.
Snowden heads back to the states and tries to patch things up with the girlfriend. His overtures succeed and they get back together. There is interesting footage of Shailene doing yoga here.
Snowden is making money. He has a gorgeous girlfriend. But he has guilt over his work.
He goes back to working with the CIA — IBM, Dell, and other companies he sells VCR’s to. Or something. He works with big companies and the CIA on tech.
But his conscience is eating at him. The FBI goes after whistleblowers he learns and it is giving him some pause about next steps.
Enter O’Brien once again. He has a new assignment for Snowden. Going up against Chinese cyber-divisions in Hawaii. Snowden wants some answers from his mentor about the NSA’s work spying on everyone in the freaking world. O’Brien brushes him off at first but then gives us a speech about how The United States is a benevolent actor that needs “a centralized intel factory” to prosecute its just wars on its enemies. And if Congress knows about what the NSA does then it will be a public matter and the enemy will get wise. So the patriots are operating in the shadows by necessity. Sounds… plausible…
Anyway, Hawaii is a big promotion and Snowden accepts the job. But first, another lie detector test and there are some irregularities when asked if he’s used any programs he wasn’t authorized to use.
Seizure. Ed has his first seizure while he’s cooking a nice dinner for his girlfriend. Ed has fucking epilepsy. Damn. Maybe it was brought on by the stress? I’m no doctor. Our hero is in deep shit though quite possibly. They prescribe him some powerful drugs. Drugs that make you sluggish and doped up.
But we’re still Hawaii bound.
Hong Kong. The Guardian says one of Snowden’s documents is a classified FISA court order. Can the U.S. government prevent them from publishing the documents? The English tea-drinking newspaper people are reticent about the due diligence. But Greenwald and the other journalists who are sitting ducks in Hong Kong are furious. They want to publish immediately. After some barking back and forth The Guardian says they will go ahead and publish so they don’t get scooped by alternative media.
Hawaii. NSA Ops. Center. Pretty rad Job. Fucking with the Chinese Army. Awesome job? Maybe not to everyone. Seems like it would provide SOME entertainment value. NSA dude who showed Snowden the secret programs in Geneva is working here in Hawaii now too.
Computers are everywhere. Literally, the rooms are stacked sky-high with servers. Or whatever!
Snowden meets a new team of analysts. They’re young with huge brains. They’re running the UAV program and watch terrorists getting blown up by Reaper drones. They target cell phones. Whether or not you know the person holding the phone is a bad guy is subject to info furnished by field operatives at the CIA.
Snowden talks up a new idea he has for a new program he wants to build. Something to do with optimizing intelligence gathering. He wants to call it “Heartbeat.” It’s not that important. What you need to know is that Snowden has seen enough.
A scene between Snowden and his girlfriend reveals that he’s stopped taking his medication. It makes him feel like trash.
“Does the NSA collect any type of data at all from millions of Americans?”
“No sir, it does not.”
Lt. Gen. James Clapper National Intelligence Director to Congress.
Snowden and the other analysts witness this piece of subterfuge on television and are like *smh*
Snowden shows some of his colleagues how they are actually collecting billions of emails and calls within The United States. “We’re collecting twice as much in the U.S. as Russia.” “It seems like you’re rocking the boat,” says another computer aficionado.
The collection of America’s data is completely out of hand and the NSA is lying to Congress and the American people about what is really going on. Reality check or injustice? To Edward Snowden, this cannot stand.
Another seizure at a party held at Snowden’s extremely comfortable looking Hawaii house. But before he does, Snowden equates the U.S. Government with Nazi Germany. Saying “just following orders” is not going to be excuse enough to spy on ordinary Americans at the behest of American intelligence agencies.
This second seizure is pretty bad. But he’s not seen as unfit for his job.
O’Brien calls Snowden in for a brief tete-a-tete over a Skype call. O’Brien is ecstatic. Snowden has been kicking some Chinese ass. D.C. is pleased as punch. But O’Brien has some weirdness to broach. You failed your last polygraph big guy. What did you lie about O’Brien wants to know? Snowden defends himself: “The Director of National Intelligence just lied to Congress.” Are you panicking Snowden? O’Brien is pissed. What program did you access illegally? Snowden admits that in Geneva he did get access to some stuff. O’Brien forgives him though. And drops more weirdness on him: “Your girlfriend isn’t sleeping with that photographer that you suspect.” In a previous scene, we had seen Shailene chatting up a tall, swarthy, looking man. But how does O’Brien know about that? And why does he care? Clearly, Snowden is under much more surveillance than he knows.
Now Snowden is justifiably paranoid. Are they bugging his house? Are they peering into his thoughts? What the heck is going on? He sends his girlfriend back to America.
Now Snowden’s mind seems made up about something. But what?
Snowden makes contact with a journalist setting up a meet in Hong Kong.
But first, he needs to abscond with the files he needs. There is a dramatic movie scene where he cut and pastes secret files onto a memory stick/chip/thing. It’s all on there: DOMESTIC SURVEILLANCE, FALSE TESTIMONY, CONSTITUTIONAL VIOLATIONS, FISA, EXECUTIVE ORDERS, NASS MASS SURVEILLANCE PROJECTS. The Crown Jewels apparently.
Snowden sticks the memory card inside a Rubik’s Cube and somehow gets through security without having it scanned. It’s pretty ballsy. But I doubt it’s what really happened. If so, it took A LOT of stones. But then again it’s not like Snowden was ever roughed up by anyone. So what do I know? I am going to find out if he really did get through security the way they show it in the movie. Because damn.
Anyway, he goes to Hong Kong with the documents hidden away on the SD Card.
Now we’re all caught up. The FISA court order documents are published. Along with other stories to follow based on the documents that Snowden furnishes. Obama is collecting information from Verizon’s customers and all the info goes to the NSA. According to the court order, that is. You can find the court order by googling. The NSA is also tapping into all of the servers of major corporations extracting all the metadata and data.
I am surprised that Snowden was surprised by any of this. But that’s not to say I’m not outraged. I’m not. What did you expect when there is a fucking camera staring you in the face on the front of your computer? Give me a break!
But anyway there’s a montage of Snowden’s story blowing up across the world. It certainly looks like our hero has accomplished something of great significance.
“Architecture of oppression,” is what Snowden calls what he blew the lid on. And it could be used that way fairly easily. Who watches the watchmen though? Isn’t that one of the eternal questions?
Snowden gives away all of the encrypted files to the journalists so he no longer has access to them.
It’s now time to figure out his exit strategy.
The press has swamped the hotel where Snowden is staying. Did someone tip them off about the location? It’s unclear. But a lawyer materializes out of the ether and says he can whisk Ed away to a safe location. Ed goes incognito to make his escape from the hotel; he totes a digital camera and pulls his cap low over his eyes. Will he make it? He meets the lawyer downstairs and they get in a van.
Reporters say Snowden has been charged with espionage and the Hong Kong police have been asked to arrest him.
They go to some tenements somewhere in Hong Kong where Snowden hides with a family of Indians. Ten days go by while Snowden sweats it out. Then he goes to the airport and gets on a plane somehow. I have no idea how this was accomplished, but there you go. Snowden flies from Hong Kong to Moscow. The authorities in Hong Kong apparently let him go. Really? Anyway, Russia refuses to arrest Snowden and why would they? Russia loves to jam a thumb in our eye. And they have putty in their hands now. A turncoat U.S. spy? Pass the vodka, Comrade.
Snowden receives asylum in Russia.
And so ends our story.
Edward Snowden now sits in an apartment in Moscow. Does he work for his bread? How is it paid for? Who knows? What have the Russians been doing to him in the meantime? Do you think they’re not experimenting on him? You’re crazy.
And now, Snowden becomes a voice of government accountability and transparency lecturing the world about the evils of overreach by intelligence agencies into our democracy from the environs of Vladimir Putin. There is some weird irony there.
The last scenes are of the real Edward Snowden looking boyishly into the camera and explaining –
“When I left Hawaii I left everything. I had a stable life, love, and future. And I lost that life. But I’ve gained a new one. And I’m incredibly fortunate. And I think the greatest freedom that I’ve gained is I no longer have to worry about what happens tomorrow. Because I’m happy with what I’ve done today.”
HUGE AUDITORIUM CLAPPING THEIR ASSES OFF.
It’s a little pathetic.
Oliver Stone directed this one. Is it among his best films? It’s certainly more restrained than some of his other works: JFK, Platoon, U-Turn, Natural Born Killers, Wall Street, etc. This is a much more straightforward piece. It has some weaknesses in terms of drama. The girlfriend stuff is ok but not particularly revealing about Snowden. I think this movie is exactly how Snowden would LIKE us to think about what he did or who he is. And in that, it’s not an Oliver Stone film. Where is the skepticism? But that’s not what he’s going for. He’s just looking to tell Snowden’s side of the story.
The acting is serviceable but no one is called upon to do any heavy lifting. It’s all very “ripped from the headlines” and as such the people are behaving in very normal ways most of the time. There aren’t any cinematic speeches, action scenes, stylish dialogue, or interesting editing. Again, subdued for a Stone picture.
Is it a good movie? The answer is it’s pretty good. Joseph Gordon Levitt does a believable job of portraying Snowden. He makes the character seem earnest and intelligent if slightly in over his head. The supporting cast is just there. They aren’t directed very well with the exception of the O’Brien character played by Rhys Ifans. He’s OK. But there’s not much meat on the bone in terms of the actors, their dialogue, or their situations dramatically. This is Snowden’s story and the other parts are not really in technicolor.
But what should be done about Snowden? And how serious were his infractions? They don’t really get into that at all. Like what are the consequences of revealing classified information? Snowden would apparently be charged under The Espionage Act for what he did and be sent to prison for LIFE. That’s the law. Recently a court decision said that the programs that Snowden shined a light on were in fact illegal. But what does that matter now? Does it matter for Snowden’s case? Probably not. But what is my opinion? When you’re right you’re right. Unfortunately. Screw the consequences. Unless you’re going to be putting people’s lives at risk. And if Snowden did that then he should suffer the consequences of not keeping his mouth shut.
Hollywood and Oliver Stone have painted Snowden as an extraordinary hero with this picture. I’m not sure that is responsible. Especially since the Hollywood Left has spent the last half-century tearing down the very idea of an American hero. Unless he’s a traitor, of course. Then they lionize. Well, color me surprised.
I feel a little awkward judging Snowden’s sensitivity. But when you or any other shlub, like me, buys a computer that stares you in the face with a camera and you don’t assume you’re probably being watched fairly closely then you are a complete and utter imbecile.
So how shocked am I going to be when you say they’re also looking at your whole digital footprint?
Snowden might have been surprised to see what was behind the next locked door. It probably ain’t pretty.