If I were in a different cultural moment or not endowed with the American mindset and knowledge of Edward Snowden’s release of classified NSA data in 2013, I would look at Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” as a slightly sub-par spy thriller and move on. However, considering where and when I am, this film brings up some timely issues in the state of cinema today, especially in the year 2016, the year of capitalization on familiar brands.
“Pokemon GO” was the most popular game release of this year, our major presidential candidates sport last names everyone has known since the 90s and nearly every studio release this summer has been a sequel or a remake. “The Magnificent Seven” was a remake of a remake.
In addition to the recycling of brand names to grab our attention, we have also been more subtly exposed to the recycling of political narratives. Specifically, the one of mass surveillance being used by the bad guys against us, the good guys. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Spectre,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Captain America: Civil War” and “Jason Bourne” all base their plots around the institution or abuse of powerful surveillance systems to be used against. James Bond, Jason Bourne, Marvel’s superheroes and you and me. Is this an implicit seal of approval of Snowden’s actions by Hollywood or an attempt to cling on the digital surveillance fad?
Either way, our popular stories in action entertainment have been substantially influenced by a tech geek in Moscow. Whether or not this popularization of the troubles of government surveillance will have a positive impact on viewers and the situation itself is impossible to tell. The only thing that is certain is that commercial demonization of surveillance is on the rise. Antagonization of government workers, especially in intelligence organizations, has been going on in film since the Cold War. The only thing that has changed is the tools our villains receive. And, they are resembling the NSA more and more.
“The Dark Knight” touched on mass surveillance in an intelligent and dramatically interesting way in 2010 with sonar before Snowden was on the radar, but the movies mentioned above almost scream Snowden and NSA, and “Jason Bourne” even does mention Snowden’s name (probably a last minute attempt to be relevant) when a C.I.A. employee tells Tommy Lee Jones that a fictional former C.I.A. member’s data leak is “worse than Snowden.”
This brings us back to Oliver Stone’s “Snowden.” If I came out of it with anything, it was how apparent it now is to me that the modern action thriller, especially the spy thriller, is a snake that is now eating itself. Originality is just nowhere to be found, and I could devote a separate review to the formal aspects of the film that bothered me. However, after some research I discovered one interesting fact about the film. It was made independently.
It was filmed in Germany with German and French funding. No American studio wanted their name on this. Now, spoilers to Oliver Stone fans; “Snowden” is nowhere near as pro-Snowden as “Platoon” was anti-Vietnam. Stone’s once incendiary filmmaking has simmered in this production. He even has characters give reasonable arguments to multiple sides of the story, which, if you know Stone, is just unheard of. The question is why wouldn’t Hollywood latch on to this film? They are crystal clear on their opinions of mass surveillance when it affects our recycled brand heroes like Captain America and James Bond.
There are a few possible reasons. One, they might not have had interest in the project. I certainly was not too excited about another Stone film, especially a biography made about a man who has only been famous for 3 years, and especially a biography about the making of a documentary (“Citizenfour” which vastly superior to “Snowden” in every way and on Netflix), which only came out about a year ago. But, if lack of interest is the case, then explain how “Warcraft” or “Gods of Egypt” happened.
The other big one that looms in my mind is that the NSA and its former contractor is still too incendiary of a topic for Hollywood to want to put their hands on. After all, Clinton and Trump have both spoken out against Snowden and labeled him a traitor. It just might mean that our mainstream source of film in this country is self-censoring in order to avoid offending any moviegoers. They will sneak in fashionable but tame surveillance opinions under franchise brands but not put them in the spotlight where they arguably belong, and we perpetuate this (myself included) with our box-office dollars. We are creating a cycle in which we pay for the safe and familiar in our arts and entertainment, and complain about lack of originality.