Stone on Snowden — TIFF 2016

Old News?


Dir. Oliver Stone, USA, 2016, 128 minutes

At the Toronto International Film Festival

Someone in Toronto yesterday asked me if Obama would be likely to pardon Edward Snowden in the waning days of his second term. I told him that I doubted that such a thing would happen, given the Obama administration’s ardent pursuit of leakers of information and its threat to continue that campaign.

Misunderstood Patriot, sat Snowden and Oliver Stone

Misunderstood Patriot, say Snowden and Oliver Stone

Snowden the film, by Oliver Stone, drives that point home, as it tracks the evolution from Edward Snowden the committed patriot in the smoke of 9/11 to the man who believes that patriotism requires honesty and transparency on the part of its government, and a commitment to critical debate by its citizens. Stone never lets you forget where his own allegiances lie – on the side of the quiet computer whiz who informed the world (including the leaders of other countries) of the degree to which it was being observed by the US government.


Snowden the Film  - Close Enough in Resemblance

Snowden the Film – Close Enough in Resemblance

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Snowden well enough that the acting doesn’t get in the way of the bigger picture of an individual and a few supporters releasing information from a hotel room in Hong Kong. Snowden’s revelations came at a huge price for the messenger, the end of the private life that he once knew, and temporary termination of his relationship with Lindsey Mills, his longtime girlfriend, who now lives with him in exile in Moscow.

Back to whether he might be pardoned. Snowden, safe for now in Russia, doesn’t seem to think so. He took a memorable and life-threatening chance to be a whistle-blower. Given what he revealed, he’d be a martyr if he returned to the US.  No one should expect him back anytime soon, although Snowden has now attacked Russia for its shameful human rights and for its hacking, which has to involve global snooping as well.

Like most bio-docs of living people, this one has been overtaken by events. Snowden acted with courage and dignity, and Stone is right to keep his story alive (with Laura Poitras’s doc and her characters as its matrix), but the world has moved on. Where? From cyper-observation to cyber-war. For a sense of that journey, as it relates to information and cyber-infrastructure, see Alex Gibney’s Zero Days about cyber-weaponry that gets out of control. And it’s just the beginning.

Speaking about being overtaken by events, films in the bio-pic style tat Stone makes them take years and don’t add all that much to the record. The film that needs to be in the Stone style is not Snowden, but Trump. My nomination for the star, based on what he did with the character of Liberace, is Michael Douglas.

As they say, for your consideration. Your suggestions, submission?

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