Snowden film highlights critical issues of mass surveillance

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Edward Snowden is more than a man. He’s a topic surrounded in controversy — a controversy explored in the recently released film, Snowden, covering his life experiences as a government intelligence whistleblower.

His dramatized biography portrays riveting paranoia, fiery interpersonal conflict and the dangerous choices a whistleblower must face in leaking top-secret documents to the global public, phenomenally juggling biographical details with an edgy dramatization of intelligence-related labour. 

Edward Snowden was the former intelligence cyber-strategist behind the largest leak of confidential government files in United States history. In the summer of 2013, he leaked critical National Security Agency (NSA) documents revealing mass surveillance programs spying on regular citizens across the globe.

The film is both a political statement about mass surveillance and an entertaining film showcasing the life of a figure that shook the world with a flash drive and countless gigabytes of documents.

Snowden stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a glasses-wearing, deep-voiced Edward Snowden. The actor portrays a dramatic version of the life of a whistle blower, a story of uncovering information other people want hidden. 

Leaking classified intelligence documents is a dangerous business, but so is making it entertaining on the big screen.

Snowden director Oliver Stone had the painstaking job of balancing truth with embellishment to ensure the film didn’t turn out to be a bore. The scenes where Snowden hid the leaked data in a Rubik’s Cube and the NSA superiors spying on his personal life were dramatic fabrications, but this sort of artistic embellishment is important in the movie business.

Such a Hollywood blockbuster may serve as a better tool for spreading the word about mass surveillance than a previous documentary about Snowden’s actions, Citizenfour — an award winning film, but arguably not one consumed by the masses.

Snowden engages its wide audience with the ethical dilemmas of mass surveillance, the very conversations that Snowden has been engaging in at universities — including Queen’s — and press conferences for the past three years while in political asylum in Russia.

The film highlights a form of secretive surveillance that affects everyone. It brings to life Snowden’s desire to give the public a chance to democratically debate our need for such surveillance programs.

Snowden has been named a traitor in recent articles in lieu of the films release. In a movement that shocked many editorial boards across the world, The Washington Post called for Snowden’s arrest after the paper itself reported on classified documents leaked by Snowden that eventually earned them the Pulitzer award as a result. This is the first time in United States history that an editorial board called for the arrest of their own informant.

This said, the film has been followed by a coordinated plea for a presidential pardon to Obama from the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. It was also followed by a scathing report from the US intelligence community stating that “the public narrative popularized by Snowden and his allies is rife with falsehoods, exaggerations, and crucial omissions.”

Stone’s film has lead to a renewed global discussion of mass surveillance and the role of whistleblowers in democratic societies. Snowden’s status as a United States patriot has been called to question.

However, whether you believe that he is a hero or a traitor — Snowden’s work has highlighted some hugely relevant contemporary issues. Snowden’s leaks, and the work of journalists and academics around the globe, have lead to a further push for government accountability.

What the Snowden film does is bring the story of his important, yet shady, work to the public.

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