Most Americans hold freedom and security as important tenants for keeping the country running in the best interest of its people. Most of the time, government appears to strike a reasonable balance between the two, allowing Americans to be both safe and free.
But what happens when government decisively tips the scale toward security to the point that it undermines freedom? What happens when someone reveals that the lives of citizens aren’t as private as they once supposed? Such questions are put forward in the film “Snowden” (2016).
“Snowden” is a film that documents the actions of former National Security Agency (NSA) computer analyst Edward Snowden, who is known worldwide as the whistle-blower who unleashed rivers of data regarding certain questionable acts in the intelligence community, such as mass data collection and warrantless searches of private information via the internet. Whether hero or traitor, he has done much to show us just what the government is capable of doing.
The director of the film, Oliver Stone, took a rather cautious approach to the filmmaking, opting not to venture into tales of wild conspiracy mongering and visual flights of fancy, which have been the hallmark of many of his other films positing big questions of secrecy, power and greed, particularly “Wall Street” and “Nixon.” He seems to do his utmost to keep to the roots of the story, which was likely inspired by Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning documentary, “Citizenfour,” a 2014 film featuring conversations with Snowden himself.
This restraint is illustrated in the portrayal of Snowden himself, who was played spectacularly by star actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Snowden is presented as a serious young man who quickly finds himself disillusioned with ideals concerning responsible governing that he once held dear. Gordon-Levitt does a superb job of allowing the audience to experience certain hidden truths of the United States’ security apparatus in a way that allows us to empathize with his character on an emotional level.
This empathy was made all the more palpable through the emotional tidal wave that was Snowden’s relationship with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). Mills and Snowden’s relationship gave the film the gravitas needed in order to affirm that Snowden was indeed a normal guy, rather than a paranoid zealot as many have been quick to caricature him. Such a depiction forces the audience to confront the realities with which Snowden himself lived in his quest to rectify the conflicting and ultimately paradoxical demands of love and duty.
“Snowden” also does much to educate the audience on the nuanced demands of security and what they mean for our freedom. In multiple instances throughout the film, many actions are taken that abridge almost sacred notions of privacy and liberty, several of which are popularly understood to be constitutionally protected. The audience may choose to view such actions however they wish, but it is clear that Snowden could not continue to allow such wanton encroachments on liberty to continue unabated. The film thus vindicates his actions and humanizes the so-called “treacherous leech” many pundits and government officials have decried.
In the pursuit of a safe and secure nation, it is important to ask yourself what you are willing to sacrifice in order to achieve perfect safety. How much do you value privacy? How much do you value freedom? In this film, Snowden decided that the price of perfect security was too high and refused to cash in the freedom of all Americans for it.