Director Oliver Stone's latest examination of American geopolitical power tells essentially the same story as Laura Poitras's Citizenfour, replacing Edward Snowden's dry firsthand accounts of his personal and professional life as part of the United States Intelligence Community with dramatic reenactments that attempt to justify his decision to become a government whistleblower. Anyone familiar with Citizenfour or Snowden's leaks to the press will find no new revelations about the National Security Agency in this film, which stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the title role. The film is a kind of public defense of Snowden, providing an apologia for the accused spy by deflecting the viewer's attention from the consequences of his actions to the personal hardships and moral struggles that led to them in the first place.
This mostly takes the form of dramatizing Snowden's tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), and the various bureaucratic mentors who he alternately elates and disappoints, stand-ins for the U.S. government as an all-seeing Big Brother against whom he ultimately rebels. Scenes featuring Snowden revealing his information to Poitras (Melissa Leo), Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) are reenacted almost verbatim from Citizenfour, evidence that Stone has little original to add to the story that wasn't already covered in the documentary.
There's a basic irony about making such a film in the first place that Stone seems to miss entirely, which is that Snowden's self-professed motivation behind exposing the NSA's domestic surveillance program to the public was to start a national conversation on the subject. Snowden says repeatedly, both here and in Citizenfour, that he doesn't want the conversation to be about him because that would distract from what, in his mind, is the real issue: whether or not the U.S. government is justified in spying on its own citizens in the name of national security. The film, however, privileges his personal wellbeing as the central theme, rather than the privacy and security interests of the American people, thereby undermining the whistleblower's own stated goals.
It depicts Snowden's ethical dilemmas in a political vacuum that disregards America’s complex security threats.
Nonetheless, the appearance of the real-life Snowden at the end of the film reveals the true nature of his actions, albeit unintentionally. The film's final scenes, showing a serene and smiling Snowden inside his new home in Russia, reveals the extent to which he's become a willing pawn of the Russian government in its propaganda war against America. Stone's film fails to grapple with the fact that this supposed champion of government transparency and Internet privacy is now a tool of a government that has little of the former and is increasingly cracking down on the latter. In becoming a puppet of Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB spymaster, Snowden has become instrumental in undermining U.S. national security by allowing Putin to disseminate the illusion that Snowden's revelations have given Russia some kind of moral high ground over America in the world.
Early in the film, Stone bends over backward to establish Snowden's patriotic credentials, portraying him as a proud American who wanted to serve his country in any way possible. Snowden is the scion of a family with a long tradition in the U.S. military and his physical frailty, high IQ, and superior computer aptitude eventually led him out of boot camp and into the offices of the CIA. He's depicted as a brilliant, politically conservative computer programmer who came to question his fundamental beliefs after meeting his girlfriend. According to the film, it was a combination of Snowden's increasingly leftist politics and the moral, physical, and psychological strain of his work for the government that caused him to sacrifice his career to expose what he saw as an unjustifiable breach of citizens' privacy by the government.
While acknowledging that media coverage of our government's actions is, by its very nature, always going to incomplete, as journalists are only ever given a fraction of the information they seek, Stone presents his own account of U.S. national security as being utterly complete. Missing is any notion of the real and constant threats posed by nations such as Russia, China, Iran, and others to the physical and financial welfare of American citizens. This ongoing and growing cyberwar is totally brushed aside, as the filmmaker chooses instead to depict Snowden's ethical dilemmas in a political vacuum that disregards America's increasingly complex security threats. Here, the film reveals itself to be just as naïve as Snowden in its understanding of modern geopolitics and the nature of national security in a globalized world.