Is Edward Snowden a traitor or a hero? That depends on whom you ask.
But there’s no question how Oliver Stone feels about it.
In his biopic “Snowden,” which opens Friday, the whistleblower is a tough kid who wants so badly to be in the Army Special Forces that he fractures both legs during training. He’s brilliant, acing a CIA entrance exam in record time, but so earnest that he’s nicknamed Snow White. He has a sense of moral duty, though not in an insufferable self-righteous way, and — just to drive the point home — he’s played by one of Hollywood’s most universally appealing actors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
In short, “Ed” is a likable patriot, even after leaking a trove of classified documents that exposed the details of, among other things, a pervasive government surveillance program that monitored Americans’ emails and listened in on phone calls without individualized warrants.
Not everyone would call what Snowden did patriotism. The Justice Department, for example, calls it theft and a violation of the Espionage Act. On Thursday, a House Intelligence Committee report condemned his actions and said that he damaged national security.
Millennials love him, according to a 2015 survey from the American Civil Liberties Union, especially abroad — perhaps because he revealed how his country was spying on other governments. Of course, none of that won over those concerned about foreign policy, especially when the United States had to put out fires in places such as Brazil and Germany, where leaders were publicly condemning U.S. spying.
But Snowden hopes to return to this country unshackled. This week, coinciding with the movie’s release, he and his attorney are launching a campaign to get him pardoned (which the House Intelligence Committee has urged President Obama not to do). Stone has a history of making viewers sympathize, despite themselves, with the likes of George W. Bush and Richard M. Nixon. The timing makes you wonder: What role might a movie play in exonerating Snowden in the eyes of the justice system — and the public?
“I hope that the voice reaches to the world and people see it and they have a new perception of what happened,” Stone said of the film during a recent Skype interview.
Pop culture has a long history of vindicating people. Before Errol Morris’s 1988 documentary “The Thin Blue Line,” Randall Dale Adams was in prison for killing a police officer; after, he was a free man. The podcast “Serial” introduced enough reasonable doubt into the case of Adnan Syed, who is in prison for killing his ex-girlfriend, that he is getting another trial. And Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” helped overturn Brendan Dassey’s conviction for a 2005 murder. (Of course it can go both ways. Robert Durst is awaiting trial after a confession caught on camera in HBO’s “The Jinx.”)
In each case, public sentiment kicked the slow gears of the law into motion. For impassioned viewers, petitions are always the next logical step. They never get the immediate results signers want, but they do create buzz. Just look at the major news outlets that covered President Obama’s decision to decline to pardon the subjects of “Making a Murderer.” “Since Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey are both state prisoners, the President cannot pardon them,” a White House statement said.
Snowden’s story isn’t quite as salacious as the true-crime wave sweeping pop culture. Even though his actions have directly affected far more people than any murder trial has, it’s hard to say how many will flock to see a movie about his life. Prognosticators are predicting a $10 million opening weekend — not bad for a movie with a relatively low budget — although mixed reviews could have an effect on those numbers.
“There were definitely voices in my professional life who said, ‘Look, he’s a polarizing figure . . . that might have an impact on the commercial viability of your career,’ ” Gordon-Levitt said. “But I found the story incredibly inspiring.”
“Snowden” is less of a thriller than Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary “Citizenfour,” which chronicled the week leading up to Snowden’s big reveal in 2013 while he was hiding out in Hong Kong. (The Washington Post and The Guardian U.S. reported on Snowden’s revelations, and won a Pulitzer Prize for it.) Snowden didn’t come across at all like a cocky vigilante, the way some media reports had portrayed him. But the film earned only $3 million at the box office worldwide.
Stone’s version is more of a love story. On Ed’s first date with longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills (played by Shailene Woodley), they almost immediately get into a debate about what it means to be a good American. She thinks questioning power is part of our responsibility, but Ed sees things differently — at least at first. That’s before he becomes a government contractor and realizes how inescapable the NSA’s surveillance program is. Pretty soon he’s covering up the camera on his computer monitor with a Band-Aid and scolding Lindsay for keeping nude photos of herself on her hard drive.
“I have nothing to hide,” she says, brushing him off. That’s the attitude a lot of Americans had when they first heard about the surveillance, but the movie makes a case for why people should care.
“The film is likely to bring Snowden’s story to new audiences that maybe have paid less attention to the disclosures,” said Snowden’s attorney, the ACLU’s Ben Wizner. “I also think that the narrative force of the film can make the issues that Snowden has championed less abstract for people who may not focus on surveillance and privacy.”
Right now, Snowden lives in Moscow, where the Russian government granted him asylum. The U.S. government revoked his passport, so he is unable to travel internationally — and if he were to try to, he’d most likely be brought back to the United States to stand trial.
As part of his push for a pardon, Snowden made his case in a video interview with the Guardian’s Ewan MacAskill on Tuesday.
“If not for these revelations, we would be worse off,” he said. “Maybe this is why the pardon power exists: for the exceptions, for the things that may seem unlawful in letters on a page, but when we look at them morally . . . it seems obvious that these were necessary things.”
The White House sees the situation differently.
“Mr. Snowden has been charged with serious crimes, and it’s the policy of the administration that Mr. Snowden should return to the United States and face those charges,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said during a news conference on Monday. “The fact is the manner in which Mr. Snowden chose to disclose this information damaged the United States, harmed our national security, and put the American people at greater risk.”
Meanwhile, former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. recently told David Axelrod on the “Axe Files” podcast that “we can certainly argue about the way in which Snowden did what he did, but I think that he actually performed a public service by raising the debate that we engaged in and by the changes that we made.”
It’s clear where Gordon-Levitt’s allegiance lies. He donated most of his acting fee to the ACLU and used the rest to create short films about the intersection of technology and democracy. (One of the films starred Snowden.)
The actor sees two types of patriots — the kind who accepts everything the government does without question and the type who wants the country to be as good as it can be.
“If you have a friend who you love and they’re doing something you know they shouldn’t be doing, you talk to them about it,” he said during a recent phone interview. “You don’t just let it go by. You bring it up and try to get them to change. That’s what love is. Not asking about it wouldn’t be love. To me that’s more like apathy.”
Stone had a hard time getting the movie made. Big studios didn’t want to finance the film, but Open Road, which produced last year’s Oscar winner for best picture, “Spotlight,” stepped up.
Stone was awed by the ability of a 29-year-old to take on the most powerful nation in the world; he was also impressed with the way Snowden outed himself to avoid a witch hunt that might have put his co-workers under a microscope. If he were an optimist, he could see where his movie might help exonerate the whistleblower.
“It would be nice to see that happen, but I don’t put much faith in activism from movies because people forget them,” he said. “Whereas the establishment has the ability and the power to keep repeating. They keep repeating that he’s something else — and it’s in the paper and the news.”
Whatever happens, Stone sees other positives to bringing Snowden’s story to light.
“The best thing to happen [would be] that other people will be inspired,” Stone said. “There will be other whistleblowers, that’s for sure. It’s not going to go away. When great wrongs are being done, people know and they do talk.”
Note: This story has been updated to clarify that Snowden’s documents exposed the details of a government program that listened in on phone calls without individualized warrants.