Edward Snowden, Everyman? Oliver Stone's biopic is factually accurate, but honesty isn’t the same as objectivity. By SCOTT BEAUCHAMP
Near the end of Oliver Stone’s latest au courant period piece Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing the titular role, tells the three journalists assembled in his Hong Kong hotel room and tasked with disseminating evidence of government malfeasance to “Keep the focus on the story, that’s all that matters.” The line, knowingly ironic for such a hagiographic biopic, is delivered like a wink from the director.
Keep the focus on the story? But the movie itself is called Snowden, not Your Government Is Spying on You or They’ve Been Lying From the Start. The film follows Edward Snowden from his time enlisting in the Army after 9/11 to his dramatic 2013 flight into exile as a disillusioned intelligence analyst determined to expose illegal government surveillance. It paints an intimate portrait of Snowden’s foibles, domestic complications, hopes, fears, and ultimate disillusionment.
The point that Stone seems to be making with the sly line is that in order to deliver possibly the largest government corruption scandal in the last century to a willing audience, the dry facts of cybersurveillance need to be entwined, helix-like, with the narrative of Edward Snowden’s heroism. In order to connect with audiences, the film has to be propaganda. Sophisticated propaganda, to be sure, but propaganda nonetheless.
I’m using “propaganda” here more in the Chinese sense of the word than the English. In English, “propaganda” implies a sort of sophisticated way of lying. The truth doesn’t need rhetorical bells and whistles hung on it. But the Chinese word—宣传 (“Xuānchuán”)—suggests simply “persuasion” or “dissemination.” Almost a marketing campaign on behalf of an idea. And this is exactly what Oliver Stone is engaged in with Snowden.
All evidence indicates that the movie accurately conveys the facts relevant to the story. It draws its plot from The Snowden Files by Luke Harding and Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena. Veteran intelligence reporter Jeff Stein writes that “Stone hews far closer to the facts in Snowden than in any of his other films.” But honesty isn’t the same as objectivity, and this movie is obviously meant to persuade. The release of the film coincides with a campaign by the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International to publicly pressure Obama to grant Snowden, still exiled in Moscow, a pardon so that he can return home without facing trial under the Espionage Act. Wired writes that the release of Stone’s film “might just boost their chances of success.”