On September 14 I took in the "Snowden Live" event, which featured a screening of Oliver Stone's new paranoid thriller about the man who alerted Americans they were under mass surveillance by their government. The movie was followed by a good-natured live Q&A session. Moderated by a dapper, buoyant Matt Zoller Seitz, editor-in-chief at RogerEbert.com and TV critic at New York Magazine, the panel featured Joseph Gordon-Levitt (spot-on as Snowden), Shailene Woodley, and a nicely disheveled, slightly uncomfortable Oliver Stone in New York. Snowden himself was piped in from Moscow. Zoller Seitz, who has a new book out on Stone, The Oliver Stone Experience, asked good, intelligent questions while not letting the proceedings become somber, despite the serious human rights issues at stake. The playful affair even ended with a cake and a "happy birthday" singalong for the director's 70th. "Happy birthday, dear Oliver," I sang.
Stone characterized his approach in the film as an attempt to humanize Snowden, and so a lot of it details his relationship with his girlfriend, Lindsay (Woodley). Some critics have found the movie a bit less than thrilling. It is overlong, and the Hollywood thriller elements feel a bit shoehorned in. It plays like the commercial movie it was very much made to be. (With less of an imperative to entertain, Laura Poitras' documentary on Snowden, Citizenfour, is spookier.) Still, I thought it a well-crafted, absorbing story about a thoughtful, gentle young man who did something very brave. What it reveals makes you shiver. And it's about something, which you can't say of a lot of what comes out of Hollywood. (In order to get access to Snowden, the filmmakers had to agree to buy the rights to, and base the film on (but not really), a potboiler novelization of the Snowden story called "Time of the Octopus" by Snowden's Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena.) I do wish the whole thing had the zip and humor of the pre-movie PSA, where Stone cautioned us to silence our cell phone, because there's enough on it "to burn your life to the ground." This was followed by a winking disclaimer where a voice assured us that the theater did not necessarily endorse the views of Olive Stone, and we were welcome to turn our phones back on after the movie.
Stone is a product of the 60s, yet he's a bit of a Hollywood classicist at the same time. In some sense his stories really aren't that removed from, say, Frank Capra. Not in tone, of course, and I don't say he has that touch. Still, his hero begins as a patriot, sometimes played by an actor associated on a meta level with American values (think of Kevin Costner in JFK). Then, he finds the principles were all just pretty words, and in fact are regularly violated. (Snowen's friend calls him "Snow White" for his innocence.) The Snowden we first meet is a genial, tolerant, conservative young man, who believes he is serving his country by working computers for the CIA and NSA. He is increasingly appalled by what he sees behind the veil--mass spying, drone strikes. He warms to Obama under the tutelage of the liberal Lindsay, believing the new president will staunch the abuse. Of course, he does not. Such violations turn American values into lies, and those who believed in them into dupes. Whereas Snowden began with blind faith, he comes to learn the government lies. It's an arc traced by Stone's generation, forged in the crucible of Vietnam. I wouldn't say his heroes come to question their patriotism, exactly. Rather, they tell truth to power as a way of insisting the country live up to its creed. Like Snowden, they won't have the pretty words become lies.
In the Q&A afterwards, Snowden came across as wry, reflective, soft-spoken, and self-effacing. He drew our attention to the whistle-blowers who had gone before him, and paid the price, such as Thomas Drake, who was in the audience in New York. A former NSA man, the government hit him with the Espionage Act.
A few words of Snowden's especially resonated with me. He was asked to comment on how he'd respond to someone who reasoned, well, I have nothing to hide, so why should I worry? Snowden began to talk about what privacy means to him (and here I paraphrase):
Privacy means you get to share with the world the part of you that says, this is who I'm trying to be. And in turn, you get to protect the part of yourself you're still experimenting with. It's a right to the self, and if we don't have that, we have nothing.
These words hit home with me, as a writer. Imagine not being able to keep private your works in progress, the experiments on the page where you're letting yourself think those thoughts you might not even want to think. Before deciding for yourself whether it's something you want to share with the world.