Oliver Stone's biopic of Edward Snowden opened the past weekend and has done quite well, especially for a film that focuses on the abuses of the U.S. government and was — like most such movies — difficult for a three-time Academy Award-winning director to even make in the United States. A solid majority of the reviews were favorable, and among viewers it was even more popular.
Interestingly, a number of critics saw the movie as "restrained," or not as forceful as it could have been, given the lies and crimes that Snowden exposed. But this seems reminiscent of those perceptual psychology experiments where the subjects are asked to count how many times basketball players pass the ball, and in the process completely miss that an intruder has walked onto to the court.
Consider this statement from Snowden in the movie, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt:
"You're also being ordered to follow most world leaders and heads of industry ... because you're also tracking trade deals, sex scandals, diplomatic cables to give the U.S. an advantage in negotiations at the G-8, or leverage over Brazilian oil companies, or helping to oust some Third World leader who isn't playing ball. Ultimately, the truth sinks in no matter what justifications you're selling yourself: This isn't about terrorism; terrorism is the excuse. This is about economic and social control, and the only thing you're protecting is the supremacy of your government."
This is a pretty in-your-face criticism of empire, the kind that we rarely hear in the major media — even if the simple truth of it is well-known to tens of millions of Americans. The idea that foreign terrorism, which kills fewer Americans than lightning each year, could be used as an excuse for all kinds of abuses and interventions worldwide, is widely suppressed in the United States.
We also learn from Snowden that he was morally repulsed by the war crimes that our government commits under the false pretext of "national security." He explains to his coworkers, while working for Booz Allen Hamilton as a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), that they could be criminally liable for killing civilians with drone strikes, and for other crimes.
Snowden: You've heard of the Nuremberg Trials, Trev? They weren't that long ago.
Trevor: Yeah. And we hung the Nazi big shots, didn't we? So?
Snowden: That was the first trial. The next one was guards, lawyers, policemen, judges. People who were just following orders. That's how we got the Nuremberg principles, which the U.N. made into international law ... in case ordinary jobs become criminal again.
Having seen Snowden as primarily a defender of the right to privacy, and someone who exposed illegal mass surveillance, it is understandable that most people missed that he also came to understand the evils of empire and its unnecessary wars that have traditionally — and increasingly since the "War on Terror" — posed the greatest threat to our civil liberties. Fortunately, Stone — who directed the film and cowrote the screenplay — had dozens of hours of interviews with Snowden and was therefore able to appreciate and portray this side of Snowden's character.
The movie also makes it crystal clear that Snowden did not voluntarily end up in Russia, but was forced by the U.S. government to remain there when he stopped in the country in transit to Latin America. This is important, because the right in the U.S. has tried to portray him as collaborating with Russia, and the major media have not been particularly vigilant in dispelling this misperception — with the result that many millions of Americans incorrectly believe that he chose Russia as his place of exile.
Snowden, of course, went through an evolution in his ideas and that is the dominant narrative of the film. There are other interesting aspects of that narrative that also seem to have previously gone unnoticed. To Stone, it was very significant that Snowden's girlfriend Lindsay Mills (played by Shailene Woodley), had a major role in his political development, bringing him out of the stultifying, right-wing libertarianism and mindless "patriotism" that drove him to join the special forces. But most critics seem to have missed that, too.
"There are plenty of other ways to serve your country," an Army doctor tells Snowden after injuries prevented him from continuing to train as a soldier. That turned out to be an understatement, and deeply ironic, because his great service was only possible after he discovered what his country — or more accurately his government — was really doing.
Snowden's service has inspired an effort, led by the American Civil Liberties Union and other human rights groups, to convince President Obama to pardon Snowden before the end of his term. As they have noted, there is no evidence that Snowden leaked any data that harmed U.S. citizens or our actual security; and his leaks have resulted in needed reforms, including the prohibition of some forms of mass surveillance by our government. This petition is a worthy cause.
And for the same reasons, other brave whistleblowers deserve mass public support: Chelsea Manning, who was tortured in prison and recently attempted suicide; Thomas Drake and John Kiriakou, who were wrongly prosecuted under the Espionage Act; and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whom our government has kept unlawfully detained, through threat of prosecution, in the Ecuadorian embassy in the U.K. for four years, among them.
These people are all heroes who are helping, much more than U.S. military adventures abroad, to make the world a safer place for everyone — including Americans.
This piece was corrected on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016 at 11:08 a.m. to note Snowden's contract work with the NSA.
Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., and the president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of the new book "Failed: What the 'Experts' Got Wrong About the Global Economy" (Oxford University Press, 2015). Weisbrot cowrote Oliver Stone's 2010 film "South of the Border."
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