[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]
I saw Snowden the other day. It’s good entertainment, as Oliver Stone’s movies tend to be, and with solid acting—notably Joseph Gordon-Levitt, excellently cast as Edward Snowden—though is not without flaws. E.g. way too much time is given over to Snowden’s relationship with his GF, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), the portrayal of which conforms to classic Hollywood conventions. And the political subtext is typical simple-minded Stone, uniquely skewering the United States for engaging in action—here, mass surveillance of the world’s population—that any state would engage in if it had the technical capacity to do so. There’s no morality in this domain. States are states. And, as we have learned since the Snowden affair broke in 2013, Germany, France, and the UK, among others, have indeed engaged in technological eavesdropping à la NSA (my posts on the NSA/Snowden are here and here).
Watching the film I naturally thought of the current political drama in the US and its unspeakable president-elect. In depicting the NSA/CIA surveillance apparatus, such as Snowden informed the world about, I had a thought: the American state knows everything relevant about any person—and particularly any American citizen—it wishes to know about. The American state—its national security apparatus—knows all about Donald Trump. It has the goods on him: maybe not of every last p*ssy he’s grabbed but of his foreign dealings—with the Russians et al—his finances, tax returns, shady persons he’s been associated with, you name it. There is necessarily something in Trump’s life over the decades—just one little thing—that is seriously comprising, not only to himself legally but eventually to the national security of the United States. Trump, America’s commander-in-chief to be, knows nothing about America’s national security apparatus and precious few of his handful of advisers do either, a flake or two excepted, but the apparatus knows about him. So my question is: over the next four years, who will have the ascendancy over whom in matters of the national security: the ignoramus president or the apparatus?
IMHO, I believe it will be the latter. Trump will be boxed in. The apparatus will dominate him—inform him of what he can and cannot do—rather than the other way around. For this reason, I am somewhat less concerned about Trump’s foreign policy than his actions on the home front.
One comment about Stone’s film. President Obama is shown defending the NSA and condemning Snowden’s whistleblowing. Likewise Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail. Knowing Stone’s political parti pris, the effect on the spectator is clearly intended to be one of disapproval. But in view of the posts Obama and Clinton occupied in the state, does one seriously expect that they would have reacted otherwise, that their public statements would have been to condemn the NSA and praise Snowden? Allez.
UPDATE: The Economist had a critical review of ‘Snowden’, which it said “fails to give movie-goers the whole truth.”
2nd UPDATE: On the NSA and the election, see Esquire journalist Charles P. Pierce’s Nov. 16th piece, “Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election is growing by the day: Now the NSA director admits Russia used Wikileaks to meddle in the campaign.”
3rd UPDATE: Here’s an email exhange I had on ‘Citzenfour’ with Adam Shatz back in April 2015, which I had forgotten about. First, Adam:
Edward Snowden was impressive, and not at all like the Thoreau-ian caricature presented by Packer and others; but that the film was flawed in some ways. Aesthetically it’s striking, perhaps a bit too much so: too cool and sleek for its own good. The film lacks dialectical tension. It treats critics as unworthy; their arguments aren’t even put forward, really, except by government officials who are lying. I’m not saying I sympathize with their views all that much but they are views, and they should be taken as such. All governments collect information, after all. The result is a sometimes wearying monologue, with a Pynchonesque vision of sinister government conspiracy, not wholly unconvincing of course but somewhat one-dimensional and…dull. Greenwald, whom I find irritating and grandiose, impressed me for once with his command of the facts and his determination. Anyway, it’s a good film, but not a great one.
It’s a well-made documentary and convinces, IMO. And I agree with you, Adam, that Glenn Greenwald, who normally irritates me too, impressed for once with his command of his subject. But I don’t know if I follow your critique of the film “lacking dialectical tension” (I’m not sure what you mean by this) or that it treats critics as unworthy. The critics it did show are government people but who, as the film also shows, brazenly lied during Congressional hearings. It wasn’t Laura Poitras’s mission to give equal time to all parties to the debate. The film certainly convinced me that what Edward Snowden revealed should be taken more seriously than I did when the affair first broke (my attitude was mostly bof). Now the question I’m trying to resolve in my head is if Snowden should be granted political asylum in France (as lefties here, including some I respect, have been arguing). Unless he clearly revealed specific state secrets to the Russians and that could compromise US security, I think he probably should be.
Offering asylum to Snowden could be François Hollande’s parting shot before leaving office. His final poll ratings would spike, no doubt about it.
4th UPDATE: Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz had a lengthy must-read article in TNR, dated January 19th 2014, “Would you feel differently about Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange if you knew what they really thought?”
5th UPDATE: The February 9th 2017 issue of The New York Review of Books has a review essay by Charlie Savage, who is a New York Times correspondent in Washington, of Oliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’, “Was Snowden a Russian agent.” Money quote
Stone’s movie, which premiered in September, presents a comic-book version of the pro-Snowden narrative in which a wunderkind super-hacker takes on Big Brother. In telling that story, Stone mixes accurate material with fiction, while simplifying away complexities. His movie steps on the genuine privacy issues raised by Snowden’s disclosures with melodramatic embellishments, such as a scene in which an invented senior NSA official, his Orwellian face filling a floor-to-ceiling screen, casually reveals that he knows whether the Snowden character’s girlfriend is sleeping with another man. It omits actual Snowden disclosures whose individual privacy rationale was debatable, such as when he showed the South China Morning Post documents about the NSA’s hacking into certain institutional computers in China. And its discussion of the volume of Internet metadata the NSA collects from equipment inside the United States ignores any distinction between truly domestic e-mails and foreign-to-foreign messages that are merely traveling across domestic network switches.
Savage also reviews—negatively—Edward Jay Epstein’s book How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft.