So it’s literally the current year, so either you’ve been living under a rock, or you’ve heard the name Edward Snowden. And if you’re not sure what it was that he did that has caused so much uproar across the world, Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” is a great place to start. Joseph Gordon Levitt turns in a solid and accurate performance, even down to the little idiosyncrasies of how Snowden talks. JGL pulled it off convincingly so, and it works well.
More importantly than that, and considering I have no background or experience in cinematography, film making, story-telling, etc…I can only speak to what it is I am passionate about and have some semblance of understanding in – Which is to say, what Snowden did and why it’s so important.
For those still unaware, Snowden, at the time working as a contractor with the NSA, created and operated spying programs that allowed the operator to turn on speakers, access CCTV feeds, or operate phone and webcams, and much much more, for virtually anyone across the globe. Whether it was Angela Merkal in Germany (whose own government has since been outed has receiving American spy intel, and been accused of spying on their own people), or the extended family of suspected terrorists living in the states, the issue comes down to an age old debate within politics, and one that is central to the study of political science – liberty vs security. In the movie, Snowden’s boss, teacher, and mentor, Corbin O’Brien puts like this “People don’t want liberty. They want security. Secrecy is Security. And security is victory.” Logically, that means secrecy is victory. And who is keeping the secrets?
Which leads to these questions: security for who? Victory for who? If the American government is spying on American, non-combatant, civilians, who claims victory? And perhaps more importantly, who is the loser? Well, if Snowden is to be believed, and I believe he is telling the truth, then it’s not even a contest. And it hasn’t been for a very long time.
The revelations Snowden provides are incredibly important, and the movie does a good job at helping us understand Snowden’s apprehension and conflict. When his girlfriend expresses little concern over being potentially spied on, JGL’s Snowden loses his cool, exclaiming that “not having anything to hide anyway” isn’t the point. I recall a tweet from the real Edward Snowden in which he said “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”
The rest of the quote from the AMA on Reddit, which I’ll link to below, is likewise important, as it highlights a fundamental nature of justified rights.
Snowden says, “Some might say “I don’t care if they violate my privacy; I’ve got nothing to hide.” Help them understand that they are misunderstanding the fundamental nature of human rights. Nobody needs to justify why they “need” a right: the burden of justification falls on the one seeking to infringe upon the right. But even if they did, you can’t give away the rights of others because they’re not useful to you. More simply, the majority cannot vote away the natural rights of the minority.”
And this is precisely why the argument for privacy is just as important as the fight for, and sustaining, of ALL of the rights laid out specifically in the Bill of Rights. Your privacy is yours; it belongs to you. It is yours to do with what you wish. And to allow it to be taken away from you, without voluntary and explicit permission, is to, in effect, give them all away.
The fight for 1st amendment rights is the fight for privacy. The fight for 2nd amendment rights is the fight for privacy. The fight for privacy is the fight for free thought and expression. If the government can take away our ability to be private, just ask how much freedom we would actually have in public? Without privacy, revolutionaries like Ben Franklin or George Washington could not have met to discuss strategy in the coming war against the Crown. And to be clear, a revolution is happening now.
Aside from the scene I mentioned above, there was another scene I found especially telling during the movie. There was a scene where the main characters of the movie, along with other employees of the NSA are huddled around some TV’s at the Agency’s Hawaii location, and they’re watching testimony being given by NSA Director James Clapper. He’s asked by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon whether or not the NSA collects data on Americans. Director Clapper answers sheepishly “No sir, not wittingly.” It appears as if he doesn’t even look the Senator in the eye as he says it. The camera then goes back to the NSA agents and employees who look at each other with alarm, confusion, and hesitation. It’s as if they were thinking “Wait…if what we’re doing is right, why did he just lie about it?” Imagine what it would’ve been like to have been a fly on the wall on that historic moment in the halls of NSA down there in Hawaii, or better yet, an employee of the NSA right then. The director of your agency, who is likely very well briefed on all major operations, exercises, and policy, has just told the American Senate that the NSA was not doing what you are explicitly doing. What questions arise in your mind? “Am I doing what’s right? Can I do the wrong thing but for the right reasons?” Apparently Director Clapper thinks so. But it’s a great scene in the movie because it should immediately give everyone, NSA employee and civilian alike, pause, as to how far we’ve come in our quest for security. And to question whether that quest has caused our country to lose sight of the very things we were founded on in the first place. If we lose that, are we the same country? Or are we America in name only?
As for me, I believe Snowden is a patriot. To give up a cushy job, good and solid money, stability, a good relationship, and abruptly run half way around the world to expose the corrupt and abusive practices of government agencies run amok, despite threats of prison, or worse…if that makes him a traitor, then he is no different than the American patriots who were “traitors” to the British crown. Snowden is a patriot. A true patriot. And he should be pardoned.
I enjoyed the movie. It was amazing getting to see more sides to this story than what has been revealed so far. Whether you’re a fan of Snowden or not, or believe what he did was treasonous or not, you owe it to yourself to see the movie, gain a new perspective perhaps, and ask that age old question again for yourself – liberty or security?