Oliver Stone’s sympathetic interpretation of facts spins Snowden in a better light, but misleads its audience about the gravity of Snowden’s actions.


Traitor. Thief. Whistleblower. Which of these does not belong? Citizens and governments use these words to describe Edward Snowden. His story brings into sharp contrast the difficult balance between the compelling interest of national security and every individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Oliver Stone’s cinematic adaptation, Snowden, portrays a persecuted analyst standing up to an abusive government. Stone’s movie establishes Snowden’s unique eccentricities and moral dilemma at the expense of fact and true concern for individual privacy. The movie employs a red herring strategy in an attempt to appeal to an audience who views Snowden as a heroic whistleblower. As a result, Snowden is no more than a factually misleading and intimate narrative of a troubled analyst.

 A Problematic Storytelling Method

 Snowden attempts to tell the story of one man’s evolution from soldier to analyst, and finally into whistleblower. According to the movie, Snowden, a humble, conservative genius, only wants to serve his country. He thinks he can do so by becoming a soldier, but while training, he breaks both of his legs, preventing him from entering combat. Still driven to serve his country, he pursues a career in intelligence analysis contracting. The rest of the film traces Snowden’s service as a Dell contractor to the CIA and a Booz Allen Hamilton contractor to the NSA, narrating his progression from soldier to analyst.

Stone integrates Snowden’s love life into the story in an attempt to bring depth to his character. Within minutes of introducing Lindsay Mills—his girlfriend—Snowden faces a dilemma: should he fight for his country or fight for what is right? Mills openly challenges  Snowden’s conservative beliefs.1 She encourages him to sign a petition to end US involvement in Middle Eastern wars. Mills also has several conversations with Snowden, trying to convince him that President Obama’s policies were not all that bad.

Snowden’s paradigm-shift and liberalization marks the next phase of his progression: suffering a personal moral dilemma against US intelligence collection practices. The film separates into two subplots: a CIA contract in Geneva and an NSA contract in Hawaii. In Geneva, a CIA case officer allowed and even encouraged an asset to drive while drunk. In addition, a fellow analyst exposed Snowden to the agency’s dragnet data collection program. While in Hawaii, Snowden observed a visualization of NSA surveillance within the United States. Following these incidents, in the movie, Snowden resigns from the CIA on moral grounds. He also nearly exposes the dragnet program, but refrains, hoping that President Obama’s policy proposals will reach the Intelligence Community.

The last quarter of the film dramatizes Snowden’s theft of information from the NSA data site in Hawaii. Snowden escapes to China, where he entrusts two thumb drives of classified material to Guardian reporters.

From a stylistic perspective, Stone treats the government with an uneven hand. In dialogue, screen time, and concept, the US government takes on the persona of George Orwell’s Big Brother.1 Following the allegory, Snowden is the meek worker struck with a revolutionary urge to turn the table in the people’s favor. Stone designed the film to focus on Snowden’s mind instead of the government’s wrongdoing. As a result, Stone portrays Snowden more as an emotionally-driven reformer and less as a tactful analyst conscious of consequences.


A Misjudged Audience

Half the reason for this skewed portrayal is that Stone anticipated an audience sympathetic to Snowden’s cause. Yet, most Americans do not hold a positive opinion about him.1 The American Civil Liberties Union—the entity providing legal counsel to Snowden—conducted a public opinion poll in February 2015 with a representative sample size of 1,000. Of those polled, 64% disagree with Snowden’s actions.2 The majority of Americans see Snowden as a unstable threat to America, not a righteous, tactful harbinger of individual privacy rights. The movie tries to help the Snowden case, but falls on deaf ears.

HPSCI Tells the Truth

The magnitude of Snowden’s damage is repeatedly downplayed in the film, something that becomes strikingly apparent when Stone’s storyline and portrayal are evaluated against an unclassified report published by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI). The report, which determined that Snowden caused exceptionally grave damage to national security, was released the day before Snowden came out in theaters.

The first telling difference between fact and fiction comes in the portrayal of the data breach. Snowden’s data breach included over 1.5 million classified documents, but Stone only devotes four minutes of screen time to the scene.3 The context of the scene gives the impression that the majority of documents were related to violations of domestic security, but in reality, most of the 1.5 million files did not pertain to domestic collection and potential violations of Americans’ privacy. These files primarily had a foreign intelligence focus. They included information on US cyber operations against other countries, data collection methods against terrorists, target acquisition procedures for overseas enemies, and information from international allies collaborating in intelligence collection.4 These programs and (former) secrets protect American soldiers overseas, and their exposure compromised America’s defense against terrorists and hostile nation-states. James Clapper, the Director for National Intelligence, commented, “I could understand what [Snowden] did, if what he exposed was limited to domestic surveillance. But he exposed so much else that had absolutely nothing to do with domestic surveillance, where he has damaged our capability against foreign threats.”5

The Committee also observed that Snowden “was, and remains, a serial exaggerator and fabricator.” He lied about his reasons for leaving the Army training—he claimed to have broken both legs when he only had shin splints. Stone perpetuates this lie in the film. Snowden also lied about obtaining a high-school diploma and claimed to be a CIA senior advisor when, in reality, he was an entry-level computer technician. He stole an answer key for an NSA employment test and used it when applying for a job. In order to disguise the real reason for his trip to China, Snowden fabricated a story about needing treatment for epilepsy from Hong Kong.4

Not a Whistleblower

HPSCI’s final observation answers this movie review’s question: Snowden was not a whistleblower. In accordance with the US legal system, a whistleblower discloses “classified information that shows fraud, waste, abuse, or other illegal activity to the appropriate law enforcement or oversight personnel—including Congress.”4 In addition, the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998 (IC WPA) affords legal protections for individuals seeking justice and legal consistency.6

Yet Snowden did not pursue the correct channels of oversight. Congressional investigation into the issue identified three actions that prevented the term “whistleblower” from applying to this instance:

  1. Snowden never contacted any oversight or law enforcement official regarding his concerns about individual privacy rights, which he should have done to legitimize the exposure of secrets.4
  2. Snowden violated the privacy of government employees and contractors associated with the 1.5 million classified documents; proper cooperation with law enforcement about NSA breaches could have avoided such additional violations of privacy.4
  3. Snowden failed basic education/training regarding privacy protocol with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and PRISM. He claimed that the tests he had to take were rigged. This education emphasized the implications regarding individual privacy.4

What’s Real and What’s Not?

Ironically, Oliver Stone’s film intentionally worsens the whistleblower issue. The real Snowden claims that he tried talking to officials about his concerns, but the film named after him only shows a private conversation between him and a career mentor. In addition, Stone includes clips of DNI James Clapper’s statements from March 2013, saying that the NSA does not “wittingly” collect records “in any way” on American citizens. The film implies that this statement motivated Snowden’s thievery. In reality, Snowden started stealing documents as a Dell contractor back in May 2012, before these statements were made. The movie also slips in a final lie that denies a perplexing problem still plaguing the Intelligence Community. In the film, Snowden claims that he no longer has access to the documents he stole. In real life, he only gave about 200,000 of the 1.5 million documents to journalists working for the Guardian on June 5, 2013. Seven days later, Snowden gave a reporter at the South China Morning Post additional information, the full extent of which is still unknown.

The Verdict

Oliver Stone’s film intends to paint Snowden as a valiant whistleblower seeking unrequited justice. In reality, the movie throws audiences a red herring in the form of Snowden’s personal moral distress, without evaluating (much less vindicating) his actions. Snowden sacrifices accuracy for drama. In the end, the question remains. Which of these does not belong: Traitor, Thief, Whistleblower? ■

  1. Jared Midwood. “Movie Review: Snowden.” PHC Herald 24, no. 5 (September 23, 2016): 11.
  2. Steven Nelson, “Edward Snowden Unpopular at Home, a Hero Abroad, Poll Finds,” USNews, April 21, 2015, http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/
  3. “Intelligence Committee Approves Snowden Report.” U.S House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, September 15, 2016, http://intelligence.house.gov/news/document
  4. Michael Kelly, “Fact Check: 5 Key Parts of Oliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’ Biopic That Don’t Match Reality,” Yahoo Finance, September 13, 2016, http://finance.yahoo.com/news/fact-check-5-parts-of-oliver-stones-snowden-biopic-that-dont-match-reality-100229227.html.
  5. “Whistleblower Edward Snowden Will Not Be Pardon—US Intelligence Director,” Sputnik News, August 9, 2016, https://sputniknews.com/us/
  6. “Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998,” Congress.gov, https://www.congress.gov/bill/105th-congress/house-bill/3694.

 Snowden poster and movie screenshot courtesy of Endgame Entertainment.