Edward Snowden Biopic Might Be a Problem

by Michael Arbeiter

If you haven’t seen the new Laura Poitras documentary CITIZENFOUR, there’s a good chance you’ve been referring to it as “the Edward Snowden movie.” And with reason, of course — the subject of the film is Snowden’s highly publicized NSA leaks, and all the implications and consequences thereof. But if you ask Poitras — or, better yet, Snowden himself — he isn’t the aspect we should be focusing on. That’s why Oliver Stone’s upcoming biopic of the controversial figure serves as a bit of a problem.

Following his decision to leak privileged information about the U.S. government, Snowden sought documentarian Poitras as a means of getting his message out to the public. This was not a stab at the spotlight — in fact, the film paints him as the sort of fellow who’d rather avoid all sorts of fame entirely. But Snowden knew that revealing his identity was the only way to clear his loved ones of involvement with the situation. By getting himself out there, he alone bore the responsibilities of his actions. And these actions are what he wants us to remember, not his character.

Stone, though engaged primarily by the political world, is as much a character builder as he is a courier of messages. His grand biographical pieces like JFK, Nixon, and W. put vivid faces on their respective issue-laden stories, making the front-and-center leading men as memorable as the topics they surround. If Stone follows tradition in a Snowden biopic, we wouldn’t just see the activist’s message come to life in a gripping narrative form; we’d see a complex hero (or anti-hero) born above the story, unraveling his form as we delve deeper into what could otherwise be an exploration exclusively of the issues at hand.

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Now, this isn’t inherently a bad thing. Plain and simple, it’s quality filmmaking — something that Stone can be accredited with rather consistently (especially in his politically charged works). Second, an approach of this nature to the Snowden story would intrinsically earn it more eyes, especially at the hand of a director of note like the one in question.

But does the story Stone gives us detract from Snowden’s real mission? It’s hard not to wonder if this might be the case, considering the efforts he and his documentarian take in CITIZENFOUR to highlight the importance of the details of the NSA leaks over that of Snowden, his work, his courage, his sacrifices… to Snowden, all these should be immaterial in the eyes of the world. He is a man enacting a mission, not a character at the head of a story; while the latter might make for better narrative film, it is not always the appropriate means to pursue a real life account, resulting in skewing of what might otherwise be seen as objective information.

Whether you root for Snowden or not can only be determined by a vantage point of the facts in earnest. A story demonizing or idealizing the man, warping his work in order to transform him into a well-written piece of art, emancipates the issue from our grasp as a genuine piece of political interest. And with an issue as important as this one — an issue that truly warrants our genuine attention — such a transformation might be terribly counterproductive.

Images: Getty (2)