In one of the earliest scenes of 2014’s Academy Award-winning documentary Citizenfour, journalist Ewan MacAskill sits down with Edward Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel room to ask the now-famous whistleblower to talk about himself. Throughout the film, director Laura Poitras chronicles Snowden’s meetings with journalists as he leaks classified National Security Agency documents and explains their significance. In this interview, Snowden quickly dismisses MacAskill’s prompt as irrelevant to their discussion: “…I feel the modern media has a big focus on personalities,” he says. “And I’m a little concerned that the more we focus on that, the more they’re going to use that as a distraction. I don’t necessarily want that to happen, which is why I’ve consistently said, you know, I’m not the story here.”
Given his insistence on focusing his story on substance, it seems strange that Snowden is now the protagonist of a Hollywood blockbuster directed by Oliver Stone, a filmmaker whose career is built on character studies like Wall Street and Platoon. Snowden allowed Stone to interview him prior to the completion of the script; he even pops up onscreen for a cameo near the film’s conclusion. His stated desire to keep out of the spotlight seems at odds with Stone’s predilection for analyzing personalities. Snowden would likely not have agreed to collaborate with Stone if he did not believe that doing so could serve a larger purpose.
What can the dramatization of this well-documented series of events contribute to our understanding of the political issues involved? Snowden has already explained the United States’ surveillance program in great depth—what further insights does he think that a film like this could offer?
With Snowden, Oliver Stone takes on the challenge of explaining, in human terms, what we learned about modern society from the Snowden leaks. He highlights the philosophical questions that we, as Americans, should be asking ourselves in light of this new information. Mass surveillance is at the heart of Snowden, but explaining how this data collection works is far from the movie’s only purpose; instead, the movie asks what our attitudes about mass surveillance say about us. Like several of Stone’s best films, such as Nixon and Born on the Fourth of July, it also explores issues like patriotism, government accountability, and the need for compassion in the service of national interests.
Politics and Patriotism
Whereas Citizenfour is an example of in-depth journalism that explains what mass surveillance is and how it works, Snowden is a bigger-picture piece that seeks to place the issue in a larger societal context. In Snowden, both proponents of data collection and its detractors get to weigh in on the controversy. “The modern battlefield is everywhere,” Corbin O’Brian, Snowden’s fatherly professor at the CIA, tells him early in the film. The threats of cyberwarfare and cyberterrorism require the government to patrol the vast expanses of the internet in kind. And because one of the first rules of combat is to never give away your position, Corbin reminds his protégé, this patrol must be kept under wraps.
Stone’s Snowden understands the patriotism that informs the government policy to which he comes to object. But, as he learns from Lindsey Mills, his love interest, and Hank Forrester, another mentor figure, patriotism also means the ability to disagree with our national leaders, to look them in the eye and say that our country deserves better.
The characters in this dramatization ask the questions and debate the arguments that real people began to pose in the wake of Snowden’s revelations. Lindsey, for example, expresses disinterest in the notion that her emails are being intercepted; she reasons that she has nothing to hide. Neither Snowden’s character nor the movie as a whole has an adequate response to her point. But the contrast between her and Snowden’s reactions to learning about the invasion of their privacy is enough to highlight another interesting point: For Snowden, his newfound self-censorship presents a bigger threat to his free speech than does the initial act of surveillance.
Surveillance and Voyeurism on Screen
By far, Snowden’s biggest contribution to our understanding of mass surveillance is its artful simulation of watching and being watched. Oliver Stone employs innovative cinematographic techniques to heighten the viewer’s awareness of the voyeurism inherent in covert surveillance. In doing so, he uses the movie’s form to reflect its substance in a manner unachievable in documentaries like Citizenfour.
Citizenfour is limited in its capacity for artistic cinematography by its very nature as a documentary, but it still manages to achieve an overall haunting tone. For example, the film’s prologue features a number of establishing shots of government facilities where bulk data is collected and analyzed. The buildings, at first under construction, are portrayed from low angles as they reach completion. Tense music builds as these locations come into full view, amplifying the sinister atmosphere. This combination of sound and image imbues the facilities with a powerful, monstrous quality. These scenes are crucial because they establish the film’s critical attitude toward the U.S. government’s intelligence-gathering program.
Snowden takes a different approach to framing its conversation, and does so in a way that sets it apart from the growing genre of post-9/11 surveillance cinema. Recent films like Trumbo, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and (T)error address the question of how Americans should grapple with the apparent trade-off between security and personal liberty in the age of the Patriot Act. Going back even further, 2004’s The Manchurian Candidate offers a blistering criticism of how the Bush administration took advantage of the Americans’ fears to strip them of civil liberties. As protagonist Ben Marco comes to understand that the government is watching him, more and more scenes are shot from angles that imply the presence of hidden cameras. For example, a moment in which he uncovers a tracking device implanted in his shoulder is filmed in black and white through an air vent in his bathroom. The POV shot makes the viewers aware that their perspective is subjective rather than objective. In making the viewer present by proxy in these characters’ world, the scene creates a sense of voyeurism. We feel guilty for seeing something that we are not meant to see, without the permission of the observed.
Like The Manchurian Candidate, Snowden increasingly relies on subjective camera angles as the characters begin to realize that they are being watched. These shots are not from the perspective of implied hidden cameras, however; they are from the perspectives of the camera lenses with which we voluntarily surround ourselves in everyday life. During a few conversations between Snowden and Lindsey, the traditional “shot reverse shot” framing is interrupted by voyeuristic POVs from the perspectives of camera phones and laptop webcams. In one excellent scene, a beach party that our protagonists attend is viewed from the perspective of a remote-controlled drone several hundred feet above them.
This motif sets Snowden apart from other post-9/11 surveillance films. In The Manchurian Candidate, we are made to fear the efforts our government might secretly take to keep us under surveillance. In Snowden, we are made to fear our everyday accessories. After all, they are the means through which our privacy is regularly violated.
By simulating these forms of watching and being watched in his cinematography, Stone presents a cogent argument about surveillance: it is intrusive and voyeuristic. As he makes the viewer feel uncomfortable about looking at characters without their consent, he establishes what is at stake in the debate over surveillance.
More Flash, More Substance
Snowden is transparent in its politics. The film does not present an evenhanded evaluation of the whistleblower’s role in educating the public on mass surveillance. Stone has already come under heavy fire for taking more than a few creative liberties in his re-enactment of Snowden’s life and achievements. To dismiss his work on these grounds alone, however, would be to miss the point.
Stone infuses his movie with thoughtful dialogue and a cinematic vocabulary that both contribute meaningfully to the conversation at hand by making his case that government surveillance is invasive and voyeuristic in nature. Snowden is not simply a dramatic re-telling of the protagonist’s famous odyssey. Rather, Stone uses Snowden’s story as the pretense for engaging in a nuanced argument about patriotism and surveillance.
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