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“Snowden” continues 4th Amendment debate

Joseph Gordon-Levitt heads all-star cast in the story of famed whistleblower, Edward Snowden

October 7, 2016

In his most recent film, "Snowden," Director Oliver Stone examines Edward Snowden’s decision in 2013 to release top secret surveillance information to the press and asks the question: "Is Edward Snowden a national hero or a national traitor?"  

"Snowden," which opened on September 16th, is a biopic about Edward Snowden, the then 29-year old former CIA employee and National Security Agency contractor who turned whistleblower. Taking a decade from his personal and professional life, we watch as Snowden morphs from an unapologetic patriot who wants to serve his country into a man who gives up everything in order to (as he sees it) serve the citizens of his country. 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Edward Snowden, and impressively takes on Snowden's mannerisms, appearance and even voice intonation with complete believability. Gordon-Levitt delivers a personal and very human performance that one can get lost in, easily forgetting at times that Gordon-Levitt is not the real Edward Snowden.

Stone, known for making films about controversial political topics, masterfully takes the viewer through a 10-year period of Snowden's personal and professional life. Throughout the film, Stone clearly identifies the many milestones that influenced and eventually lead to the whistleblower's actions. The film is supplemented with actual footage of news reporters and politicians from relevant events, which anchors this story and adds to its effectiveness. The complexities of the many NSA run secret surveillance programs are delivered and explained in small amounts throughout the film, which helps it flow while not overwhelming.

Snowden's story begins post 911. At this time, during the Bush/Cheney administration, Snowden is quick to let others know that he has an unquestioning support for his President's decisions and that he believes whole heartedly in his government.  As did many people post 911, Snowden has a strong desire to serve his country, which leads him to a job with the CIA (after it is revealed to us that Snowden is a computer genius).  

As his career takes off, Snowden becomes exposed to the less ethical sides of the CIA and its leaders. He quits the CIA but returns as an outside contractor for the NSA.  It is then that he becomes more aware of the many surveillance programs being used to "track terrorism." Snowden consistently questions the legalities of these programs that are collecting metadata from American citizens in large quantities. 

During one impactful scene Snowden points out to his supervisor and co-workers that these programs do in fact violate the 4th Amendment rights of U.S. citizens and that perhaps they should be concerned about their involvement. His supervisor confidently replies that they are just doing what they are told and cannot be held responsible. Snowden then reminds them that during the Nuremberg trials the first to be tried and sentenced were the top decision makers; the people responsible for the horrific decisions of the Holocaust.   What immediately followed was a second wave of trials in which the men who carried out the actions and who did what they were told to do were then also tried and sentenced. The gravity of these statements can been felt by the silence that follows.

Real life can often be more terrifying than fiction and there are several spine-chilling moments delivered in "Snowden." One scene that is particularly unnerving shows an agent easily (and without a court ordered warrant) hacking into the computer camera of an unsuspecting woman that they hope to get some "dirt" on.  The woman is undressing in her bedroom as the agents watch and listen through her laptop, which is sitting on her desk.  In another scene, Snowden's supervisor justifies the programs by saying that, "Most Americans don't want freedom, they want security."  Another alarming statement comes from an NSA employee who admits that terrorism is just the excuse used to justify these programs.  

The strongest statements, however, come from Snowden himself towards then end of the film, when he says that "his biggest fear is that nothing will change and another leader will come in to power and should they decide to use it, they will have access to turnkey tyranny."

Whether you closely followed the details surrounding Edward Snowden and his 2013 information release of our governments illegally run surveillance state or only skimmed the headlines, this is a film that will be informative and entertaining for all.  With Edward Snowden's visa expiring in 2017 and the upcoming U.S. Presidential elections, the film "Snowden" is both timely and relevant.

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