log in

  • Published in Film Review
snowden mural

Edward Snowden mural in Manchester. Photo: Flickr/ajehals

Stone's biopic is a powerful reminder that the capitalist state can still be brought to its knees by the defiance of a single person

US film director Oliver Stone has partly built his career on chronological and subversive explorations of key events in recent American history and politics. JFK (1993) examined the murky world of Washington’s campaign in the early 1960s to unseat the Castro regime in Cuba and how clandestine operations possibly rebounded on the President himself. The film’s conclusion that Lyndon Johnson arranged the assassination of his predecessor is ludicrous but the film effectively evoked the climate of chicanery and paranoia that marked that era. Nixon (1995) portrayed how a similar atmosphere of back-stabbing manipulation led to the political disgrace of Watergate and the only Presidential resignation. W (2008) examined the coterie of evangelical neocons who manoeuvred George Bush Jnr into the White House and then used him as the front man for a long-planned invasion of Iraq and annexation of its oilfields.

Snowden is the latest addition to this filmic sequence of political dramas and shares the distrust and scepticism of the American elite of its predecessors. Collectively, the series represents a fascinating dissection of how US capitalism has degenerated over decades from the optimism of the Kennedy years to the current disenchantment that prevails in the twilight of the Obama Presidency.


Strangely, Stone appears to have shed the technical innovations that characterised his earlier films and now prefers to deploy a less showy style that seeks to allow a story to speak for itself. This led to criticisms of W that it propagated an overly-sympathetic image of its central character and exonerated him from the excesses of his administration. A less distracting style actually suits the narrative in this case as it is the story of how a hitherto unknown individual performed an act of awesome daring. Joseph Gordon Levitt in the title role delivers an understated and restrained performance that perfectly captures the spirit of Edward Snowden’s reluctant heroism.

The eponymous character is portrayed at the opening of the film as a seemingly unremarkable individual who would not stand out in a crowd for any reason apart from a penchant for solving Rubik’s Cubes with casual alacrity. Snowden is shown as a politically naïve personality whose initial desire to serve his country via a military career is cut short when he sustains a crippling leg injury in an absurdly unheroic manner. He argues with his girlfriend about the 2003 invasion of Iraq as they walk past a demonstration outside the White House. She maintains it is an unjustifiable shedding of blood for oil, while he accepts without question the government’s rationale of the War on Terror. Snowden’s rare talent for computing and information technology brings him to the attention of the CIA’s Deputy Director, played with scene-stealing menace by Rhys Ifans. Snowden is enrolled into the Agency’s elite cyberwarfare division where he is inducted on the ease with which the Fourth Amendment of the US constitution can be circumvented. The Ifans character nonchalantly explains to his team how the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) only requires the approval of a secret panel of judges to authorise covert surveillance.

Hope and change?

Snowden’s embryonic concerns about the legitimacy of this system are fully realised when his superiors co-opt him to participate in the framing of an innocent Pakistani businessman in Geneva in 2007. The following year Snowden and his girlfriend are shown watching the election of Barack Obama, both hoping the incoming President will row back on the insidious growth of the surveillance culture that has occurred under his predecessor. The film effectively depicts Snowden’s political evolution from unquestioning patriot to hopeful believer in Obama’s Hope and Change hype, and finally to refugee from all shades of the US establishment. Watching the film in the closing months of Obama’s Presidency is a sober reminder of the crushing disappointment his administration now represents to millions of Americans.

Snowden finds himself re-assigned to Japan in the first year of the Obama Presidency, where he becomes the leading figure in the CIA’s attempt to combat the operations of Chinese hackers. These scenes are an effective depiction of the alarming drift to superpower conflict that is currently underway in the Pacific. Snowden’s IT genius is channelled into an apocalyptic plan to shut down China’s computing network in the event of hostilities between the two states. He is also alerted to a similar plan to inflict the same calamity on Japan in the event of that country ceasing to be a reliable ally. Most shocking of all,Snowden witnesses how his so–called Epic Shelter program to safeguard US diplomatic information has been converted into a surveillance system that enables pilots to aim drone strikes in real-time on unsuspecting targets in Afghanistan. Snowden watches a monitor with revulsion as civilian bystanders are blown to pieces by a huge explosion targeted at an Al Qaeda suspect in an Afghan village. He struggles to suppress his disgust as those around high-five and whoop with glee at the grim spectacle.

Greater cause

By 2013, Snowden’s disillusionment with his CIA paymasters is complete and he is ready to commit the most spectacular leak of classified data since Daniel Ellsberg's release of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s. The film effectively portrays the gigantic risk Snowden took with his own physical and psychological wellbeing in taking on the greatest militarised leviathan in human history. The dramatic denouement of the film shows how he smuggled a micro SD card out of the CIA base in Japan by inserting it into one of his ubiquitous Rubik's Cubes. There is an ironic satisfaction in the sight of a security officer nonchalantly playing with the toy before tossing it back to Snowden, unwittingly assisting him in a whistle blowing venture that will humiliate the US state. The film is framed around Snowden's subsequent flight to Hong Kong where he arranges to meet a team of journalists from the Guardiannewspaper who coordinate the international release of his shattering revelations on the nature of the global surveillance culture. Snowden cuts a lonely figure, sat on his hotel bed watching the global reaction on the television news (including Donald Trump in his pre-political career calling for Snowden's execution!). Even though these scenes are the least eventful in terms of on-screen action, in some ways they are the most effective as they evoke the isolation and loneliness Snowden voluntarily subjected himself to in the name of a greater cause.

Blunt edge

The final scene depicts Snowden in his current situation of indefinite exile in Moscow. In a moving climax, actor Gordon Levitt gives way to the real Edward Snowden who ends the film with a direct address to the audience, expressing how his self-belief has not been diminished by the punitive response of his own government. There might be an unanswered question, however, in the mind of the viewer as the closing credits roll. How does Stone see the US state now the Snowden revelations have been fully publicised? Despite the coruscating critique of the American Dream that features in all his political movies, he appears to retain a residual faith in the system. This is illustrated in Snowdenby a scene near the end depicting Nicolas Cage as a supposedly benign CIA operative who is pleased to see his former student has exposed some of the wilder practices of the Agency. This ambiguity in Stone’s attitude to those at the top of the US security apparatus blunts the political edge of the film. Snowden is far from being his best or most interesting work but it is a powerful reminder that although the reach of the 21st century capitalist state may appear limitless, it can still be brought to its knees by the defiance of a single person.

Tagged under: Film
Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Sociology at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters


Help boost radical media and socialist organisation

Join Counterfire today

Join Now