Has Hollywood done Edward Snowden justice?

3 mins read

By Hannah Wakefield

Edward Snowden is perhaps the most famous and important whistle-blower of the twenty-first century. In 2013, he leaked documents revealing that the National Security Agency was comprehensively spying on every American citizen, and on states across the wider world. As a result, he was named The Guardian’s person of the year, and is considered one of the most influential people in the world. In 2016, Hollywood released a film intending to depict his story, the success of which is questionable.

The film incorporates all the blockbuster classics: a famous cast, overt patriotism, a misfit underdog – all the visual clichés under the sun. It is perhaps this, the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, that overshadows the actual content and events of the film.

The casting of Snowden himself was always going to be a difficult task and could have gone one of two ways: casting someone extremely famous who would draw in viewers, or someone relatively unknown who might be a better fit. Unsurprisingly, they went for the first option. Joseph Gordon Levitt was chosen to play Snowden. Upon Levitt’s first appearance in the film the viewer can immediately infer what route the film is going to take, for he perfectly fulfils the role of the socially inept and politically dissatisfied, yet intelligent, underdog. These are unnerving characteristics, however, when combined with Levitt’s good looks and sex appeal. No longer is the character of Snowden unsettling, but instead mysterious. Whilst this may certainly be attractive to some, Levitt’s performance is even further removed from Edward Snowden’s actual personality. This is all part of the recent ‘Sherlock phenomena’ – intelligence is sexy; brains are more appealing than brawn. Of course, this only works if said brains are found behind a beautiful face. Further still, if you compare how Levitt acts in the film with how Snowden himself behaves, Levitt is stranger – darker even. This does Snowden little justice, portraying him as far more sinister and deceitful than he actually is.

Prior to the release of Snowden, there was a documentary made on the same subject, called Citizen Four. The theme of patriotism, a trope very much present in most American blockbusters, is an interesting one considering the actions of Edward Snowden, and the two films deal with them very differently. Snowden takes a fairly liberal approach to the topic. From the outset it labels him a patriot, before proceeding to praise the Obama Administration. His political enlightenment is sparked, of course, when he meets a girl – a typical arty, ‘free-spirit’ – who is to become his long-term girlfriend. Citizen Four, however, takes a far more critical approach, constantly questioning whether Snowden’s actions could actually be considered patriotic, yet at the same time comprehensively criticises the government. Without a doubt it is the latter that does the whole ordeal justice, allowing for the audience to form their own  opinion, rather than attempting to coerce them into agreeing with the view that the film has taken.

A number of visual elements in Snowden pay homage to certain stereotypes of espionage films. The most obvious example of this is how Corbyn, Snowden’s boss in the CIA, dresses. Wearing  a long overcoat and a dark fedora, he appears almost comical. Moreover, during one sequence in the film, Snowden explains how easy it is to link everyone in the world through their digital footprint, whilst beams of green light shoot across the screen: a symbolic manifestation of the inescapable reach of the internet. Following this, the camera zooms out to show that the beams have formed in the shape of an eye, in an overtly Big-Brother-esque fashion. Citizen Four also utilises internet-type graphics, with streams of white code on a black screen frequently making an appearance. However, the documentary seems to be constructed in a more sophisticated way; every so often an electronic buzzing plays in the background in lieu of music, serving to build tension and mirroring the seriousness of what is unfolding in a way that Snowden does not. The unintentionally comical moments in Snowden render the film farcical at times, preventing it from doing any sort of genuine justice to Snowden himself.

In short, the combined effect of the casting and the strict adherence to stereotypes throughout Snowden masks the true point of the film. Or rather, they subvert the importance of Edward Snowden’s actions under the weight of Hollywood glamour, which stands in stark contrast to Citizen Four’s more nuanced portrayal. The fact that Snowden flopped at the box office suggests that such a format was not the best way to depict the story of Edward Snowden and that the film in no way does justice to the gravity of his actions.  

By Hannah Wakefield

Cover: TheWikiLeaksChannel

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