The film Snowden opens this week recounting recent events that have sent reverberations around the world.
It's no secret anymore, owing to the film's protagonist, Edward Snowden, that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British signals intelligence agency, engaged in mass surveillance programs that collected data records of anyone using the internet or a mobile device. The story is still unfolding as its main character continues his privacy advocacy, albeit exiled in Russia.
The film, directed by Oliver Stone, is a close accounting of the actual facts. We follow Snowden's journey from his days in the military to more and more high-powered positions within the NSA, CIA and as a contractor with those agencies. We're granted entrée into security operations centers (SOC) that look like sets from a Bond movie and witness interactions among analysts and military personnel that sketch in some of their activities.
For example, it seems that Snowden's penultimate moment – the downloading of files onto an SD card – was occurring just as colleagues in the next work area at the SOC were buzzing about their success in disrupting Iran's nuclear reactors (with the so-called Stuxnet virus) and quickly plotting to shift the blame to Israel. Snowden passes through security with the card nestled in his Rubik's Cube. Perhaps a Hollywood fabrication, but the film has no need to fictionalize much else.
Rather, it attempts to imbue some humanizing elements on Snowden to give his character some complexities and conflicts. Early on, we see his staunch adherence to party-line values. And then, a gradual transformation owing to a girlfriend who encourages him to question his incentives and his confrontation with activities he begins to regard as unscrupulous.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a fine job portraying Snowden. He brings his usual quiet charisma to this understated performance. The movie is immeasurably enhanced with a strong female lead. Shailene Woodley's portrayal of girlfriend Lindsay Mills shows off a spirited woman with the fortitude to challenge her boyfriend's lack of transparency. She's willing to respect the boundaries Snowden insists on (can't tell you to protect you), but will not tolerate his remoteness.
And director Oliver Stone keeps the pace moving with some film pyrotechnics here and there to tickle the audience. But, more importantly, he lets the story unfold as there is enough drama in the tale that cinematic effects are unnecessary.
And Stone's portrayal brings something beyond chronicling the story of a character's evolution. In fact, what this film seeks to address is: Are there any boundaries to which we want our government to adhere? Or, is nothing off-limits in our sustained war against terrorism? This is a film not so much about engineering achievements in advancing technology, but about the essential moral guidelines prescribing how we use that technology.
For security professionals toiling at their desks writing code and running programs, the decisions are basically technical: What hardware and software to employ to stop malware, what policies to put in place to stop employees from clicking on malicious links, how to get more budget from the C-suite to strengthen security implementations to where they need to be. In other words, how best to protect the enterprise from an ever-increasing onslaught of cyberattacks.
For Snowden, working at the highest levels of government, there was a moral choice foisted on him in addition to his technical role. Much as in Stone's earlier film, Born on the Fourth of July, which recounted the evolution of a Vietnam combatant into an anti-war activist, here, similarly, the subject experiences actions that make him question his role and the role of his government.
And questioning is at the heart of both what Edward Snowden did and what the film succeeds in honoring. What it comes down to is this: Will you stand up to an authority figure when that leader is making decisions you believe are immoral? The easy choice always is to follow orders. That's how authority wields its clout. Often, it's because they have the experience, the connections, the momentum and they know what they're talking about. Other times, it's a smokescreen to use their authority to push for policies that bend the rules, the regulations, the mandates and the ethical principles – whether in the name of returning value to the shareholders or in protecting the American people from adversaries.
Whether you agree or not with his exposure of the activities of the NSA, Snowden's choice to inform the citizenry was a principled decision. His agenda was to unmask the secret machinations of what government authorities were doing.
Have his revelations had an impact? That question remains unanswered. Certainly there has been outrage expressed by a segment of the public inclined to transparency in the government, democratic ideals and freedom from inappropriate surveillance, as well as from some of the more prominent targets of the surveillance. Legislation continues to be argued at every level of the court system with the FBI, for one, pushing to expand its use of surveillance.
But Snowden's act was to present the facts so that they could be discussed.
Has he broken the law? Should he be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Perhaps the bigger question is: Is our government defiling the Fourth Amendment's guarantees "against unreasonable searches." Has the NSA gone insane in sweeping up ordinary citizens in the name of catching terrorists?
Edward Snowden could be called a whistleblower who acted out of the highest principles, sacrificing a cushy, well-paid position for the sake of providing insight into the workings of our government. There are plenty who call him a traitor who by exposing the workings of the NSA compromised the ability of authorities to gather evidence against criminals and threat actors.
This depiction makes no pretense about where its values lie.
Photo (from left) Moderator Matt Zoller Seitz, author of The Oliver Stone Experience (Abrams Books, Sept. 2016); Edward Snowden (beamed in from Russia); Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Edward Snowden); Shailene Woodley (Lindsay Mills); Director Oliver Stone. Photo taken at preview screening in Manhattan, Sept. 14, 2016. Photo by Greg Masters.