Snowden, as one might expect, is about the controversial historical figure, Edward Snowden, an employee who worked in various capacities in the intelligence community who eventually exposed massive and possibly unconstitutional surveillance of ordinary American citizens. The movie depicts Snowden as an awkward but highly intelligent young man who fails high school but is nevertheless able to gain employment with the CIA. He has deep knowledge of computers and rises up in the agency, receiving special tutelage from agency leaders. Snowden becomes aware of the extent of the surveillance that is going on and becomes increasingly preoccupied about it. His obsession leads to alienation from his girlfriend. At one point, Snowden is having a conversation with his coworkers about which country receives the heaviest surveillance from the intelligence community. It turns out, shockingly, to be America. Snowden at times comes across as a paranoid schizophrenic: he keeps thinking that people are watching him, and he ends up putting duct tape over the webcam on his girlfriend’s computer. Snowden also has epileptic seizures.
Snowden eventually determines to reveal what he knows to the press. He is galled by the obvious lie of James Clapper, who told Congress that the intelligence community never wittingly gathered intelligence on ordinary American citizens. At various points in the movie, we see Snowden holed up in a hotel room with the journalist, Glen Greenwald, and a woman who is making a documentary about him. Here, Snowden tells the world what he knows about the American intelligence community. And the great moral controversy begins here: did Snowden do the right thing in revealing to the world what he knew? Critics think he is a traitor, someone who disclosed highly sensitive information that, once in the hands of enemies, will damage national security. Intelligence officials claims that awareness of what ordinary people are doing is needed because, for instance, two travel agents who are simply trying to make a living might be connected unwittingly to terrorist activity. Others defend Snowden, calling him a hero who gave up his girlfriend and his personal safety in order to let Americans know about the overreach of their intelligence community.
I will not make a judgment about Snowden’s monumental decision here. Oliver Stone, who directed this film, portrays Snowden in a cautiously positive light. Stone doesn’t go overboard, though, leaving viewers some moral ambiguity to work through. This is a quality film.