'Snowden' and using film to question those in authority

09 Dec 2016 BY Elinor Walpole in Film Features

8 mins

Snowden dramatises a watershed moment in recent years - the major revelation that the US government, among many others around the world, were spying on ordinary citizens without their consent. The film focuses on the leak by former intelligence officer Edward Snowden, whose controversial actions sparked debate all over the world. Was Edward Snowden's leak of hundreds of thousands of US military secrets an act of treason, or was it taking the government to task over their illegal spying on unsuspecting citizens? 

Taking on the story of this highly divisive figure is director Oliver Stone, whose previous films Nixon and JFK have also dealt with landmark moments in America's recent history without shying away from critiquing the actions and motives of those in authority.

Oliver Stone takes big political questions about freedom, privacy, security and patriotism - as well as the unavoidable sense of paranoia that the awareness of being perpetually under surveillance entails - and threads them into a story which manages to be riveting despite the fact that we know how it will end. Following on from The Fifth Estate, a feature film that dramatised the story of Wikileaks (which was also covered in documentary We Steal Secrets), Snowden also deals with the ethical consequences of revealing the extent of the power that the government has over ordinary civilians - namely by using information that they shouldn't legally have access to.

The responsibility of revealing these dubious information-gathering methods is also considered. Whistleblowing is not only a personal risk for the informer, but also can put those involved in covert operations in danger. Snowden argues that the defence of national security uses fear as a weapon by which governments can take away freedom with impunity. The film poses the question; which is more dangerous the threat of terror from abroad, or having your freedoms eroded from within?

In order to tell the story beyond the news headlines and resultant uproar, Snowden focuses on how Edward Snowden went from being a smart but naïve patriot, keen to support his government in any way he can, through to someone whose love of his country meant standing up to one of its most powerful institutions. We follow Edward's career journey through the US military and intelligence institutions, and see how what he witnessed there led him to make the decision that would have implications for governments and civilians the world over, exposing himself to significant personal risk. 

The difficulty of revealing information that will have devastating consequences for a major institution is also tackled in Spotlight, a gripping film about a group of journalists in Boston tackling the sensitive issue of exposing abuse within the Catholic church, at the risk of alienating one of their city's most influential organisations. Taking on the role of enemy of the state also puts Edward Snowden in a similar position to John Proctor in The Crucible, a parable based on Arthur Miller's play of the same name which critiques the US government's tactics during the Cold War. The Crucible is a broad attempt to capture a toxic mood that saw paranoia shape how society treated one another. Through people's fear, they were unwittingly bolstering the government's overreaching actions (also seen from an East German point of view in The Lives of Others). Recognising how the actions of governments can put innocent people in danger is also the subject of The Conversation

Snowden's angle on the issue of government interference in people's lives reveals that society is largely oblivious to the way it's being watched and what the implications of this are. The film demonstrates how fear of threats from outside a country's borders can obscure awareness of what's happening within their very homes.

The documentary Citizenfour provides much of the source material for Snowden, with the Bourne-esque thriller elements of Stone's film actually based on recreations of hotel scenes captured in Laura Poitras' documentary as Edward prepared to break the story with the help of investigative journalists. In Citizenfour, Edward Snowden himself comes across as a man who has taken on a perilous but vital mission, but is reluctant to be in the spotlight. Very aware that he is putting himself under the world's scrutiny, he is careful in his speech, choosing his words very deliberately to avoid being misunderstood or misinterpreted. In our young reporter Michael's interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt - who plays Edward in Snowden - the actor reveals how he studied Snowden's speech patterns, and what he learnt about the internet and personal security from working on the project. See below to watch the full interview!

Information leaking and hacktivism have become major news issues in recent times, with documentaries like Werner Herzog's Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World investigating different phenomena surrounding how we use the internet and the boundaries it has been broken down, with both positive and negative consequences. The Internet's Own Boy takes on the issue of ownership over information on the internet, citing World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee's mission statement for use of the Web - which promotes free and equal access to information and communication - as Aaron's Schwartz's primary defence when a criminal case is brought against him for sharing corporate-owned scientific research.

Snowden is a film that explores complex issues and takes a definite stand in favour of a very unprepossessing hero; someone motivated to act out of love for a country that he believed was undermining the values it stood for with unethical practices. Celebrating the brave actions of someone whose conscience forced them to stand up to one of the most powerful forces on the planet, Snowden is inspirational but also thought-provoking, and will definitely force you to think twice about what your phones, laptops and devices could be revealing about you.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt talks Snowden 

Elinor Walpole, Film Programmer

Elinor Walpole , Film Programmer

Elinor has a BA in English Literature from the University of Warwick. She has worked as Education and Community Officer for Picturehouse Cinemas, and as Outreach Coordinator for Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

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