Whether you see him as a patriot or a traitor, it’s a big week for Edward Snowden, who was forced to seek asylum in Russia after revealing the magnitude of the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance program.
The American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and a host of other supporters have just launched a full-court press to get Snowden a pardon from President Barack Obama. And Oliver Stone’s biopic, “Snowden,” is hitting theaters across the country and around the world – even in Russia.
GeekWire’s crew saw the movie on Thursday night at Seattle’s Egyptian Theater. The showing was sponsored by the ACLU, so you can imagine that the audience scored Snowden high on the patriot scale.
After the movie, Shankar Narayan, director of ACLU of Washington’s Technology and Liberty Project, noted that Snowden’s revelations helped the national ACLU challenge the NSA over its surveillance programs. He also noted that the controversy continues.
“There are new instruments of surveillance that are being deployed every day,” Narayan said, pointing to technologies ranging from social-media monitoring software to Seattle City Light’s smart meter program. (For more from the ACLU, check out TheyAreWatching.org.
The movie was directed by Oliver Stone, who has taken on similarly weighty topics in films ranging from “Salvador” and “JFK” to “Wall Street” and “W.” In the traditional pre-movie warning to turn off your cellphones, Stone himself delivers the message in a tone so ominous you may not ever want to turn your phone back on.
Purists will say Snowden’s screen saga has been overly streamlined and Hollywoodized. Some websites have already laid out detailed reality checks on the technical points, but without giving too much away, let’s just say that Snowden (played with an eerie flatness by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) spent a lot more time and effort to get the goods on the NSA than the movie would lead you to think.
Shailene Woodley (of “Divergent” fame) portrays Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, who helped convert the right-wing Army vet into an Obama fan – albeit a fan who’s quickly disillusioned. Rhys Ifans puts the “spook” in spooky with his Mephistophelean performance as Snowden’s CIA mentor. And Nicolas Cage takes on the role of the burned-out spymaster who gets to say “The kid did it!” at the end of the movie.
Well, not quite the end of the movie. For Oliver Stone’s final trick, Gordon-Levitt morphs into the real-life Snowden, sitting in front of a computer in Moscow as his robot avatar interacts with a cheering audience at a TED talk. The transition is part of Stone’s strategy for making moviegoers realize that this is modern-day reality, not some fictional spy thriller. But it’s also a bit jarring: How much of all this is Hollywood myth-making, and how much of it is fact?
Because of that unsettling feeling, I’m giving “Snowden” a B-minus – which is about where my colleagues at GeekWire came down as well. Here’s a second, third, fourth and fifth opinion:
GeekWire co-founder John Cook: “For an Oliver Stone movie, it was better than I anticipated, but I had very low expectations. I felt uneducated [about the Snowden case] before, and I don’t feel any more educated after this. … But the acting was pretty good, I thought.” (Check out John’s comment below for further thoughts.) Grade: B-
Resident tech guru Kevin Lisota: “I’m a huge supporter of what Snowden did. Maybe there were things that he put in jeopardy, but I think he’ll be looked back upon as one of the transformational characters in our history. … I thought the movie kind of dumbed it down, and you’ve got that cheese-ball love story. It felt like the love story with Anakin and what’s-her-name, Padme in ‘Star Wars: Episode II.’ … And you’ve got to get this in the review: Why the [heck] was Nic Cage in the movie?” Grade: C
Advertising and marketing coordinator Cara Kuhlman: “I hadn’t followed the Snowden coverage that closely at the time, but I could follow the movie without previous context. It explains some very complex things well. There are a couple of cheesy dramatic moments, but overall, I thought it was a really good film and very informative. It definitely makes me more interested in the issue of Snowden and mass surveillance.” Grade: B
Bonus review from Tonia Boyle, my favorite movie companion: “I always thought this guy was the victim of a snow job, if you want to call it that. … I didn’t know much about his life at all, or what his current state of existence is. Is there any chance that he can go anywhere else? It doesn’t sound like it. Cinematically, it was a little rough around the edges. I didn’t feel like there was any charisma between the two main characters.” Grade: B-
P.S.: Based on the quotes from Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump that Stone used in the movie, there’s not much chance that Snowden’s status will improve after Obama leaves office. Clinton says, “I don’t think he should be brought home without facing the music.” At a different point in the movie, Trump can be heard saying, “There is still a thing called execution.” For yet another perspective on Snowden’s story, check out the tale told by his former supervisor.