It’s a really sharp ethical dilemma, about which I am fiercely ambivalent. 

                Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) had a rough start:  he didn’t even graduate from high school, because, he says, his parents got divorced and he needed to work.  Afterwards, neither parent seemed to be any part of his life.  Ed Snowden joined the Army, tried out for the Rangers, and somewhere in the middle of training at Ft. Benning, he suffers stress fractures on both legs, and he’s administratively discharged.

                But he still wants to serve his country.  So he applies as a systems analyst, and though he doesn’t have the educational background, he’s got one thing they need:  an incredible aptitude for the work.  A “self-taught” programmer, and amateur hacker, he blows the top off their entrance exams, and his rapid ascendancy through the lower ranks doesn’t go unnoticed.  After a couple of years of “paying dues” in jobs that didn’t challenge his intellect, he gets offered the position he coveted:  working for the CIA.  Anti-terrorism unit.  Exactly what he feels like he was “made” to do.

                Yes, the CIA was tracking terrorist cells through technology:  by tracking their cell phones, and spying on them with drones, satellites, and yes, even old-school field operatives.  And it was satisfying, especially post-9/11, to strike back.  But Snowden soon discovers that there is a collateral cost:  not only are innocent bystanders killed in the Middle East, but innocent civilians everywhere are being monitored.  Without their knowledge or consent.  And not just in foreign countries, but also in the United States.

                Snowden is chagrined that programs he helped develop are used for this continuous monitoring (he thought he was only developing an emergency backup plan).  A field assignment didn’t make things any better;  there, working with an NSA operative, he learned that dirty tricks are routinely used to blackmail people into providing insider information.  Gradually, the naïve and idealistic Snowden (dubbed “Snow White” by one of his co-workers) begins to realize that in the end, people’s rights as private citizens were being trampled in the name of “national security,” and either nobody cared, or everybody was cowed and intimidated into silence and compliance. 

                Snowden’s attempts to lead a “normal” life are personified by his sweet, lively girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), who tries to get him to relax, smile, walk around outside, and enjoy the sunshine. But Snowden is now too much the overwrought techie-nerd, because he’s so good at it.  It’s just that his conscience bothers him so much that he begins to contemplate the unthinkable:  exposing the government’s over-reach, with the cost of not only revealing classified information, but also ending his short-lived career (he’s still not even 30), and opening himself to harassment, ridicule, and possibly prosecution.

                Right now, Edward Snowden is residing in Moscow, where he has been granted temporary asylum.  If he returns to the U.S.A., he’ll face charges of treason.  But he’s also considered a kind of alt-cult hero for championing the cause of personal freedom and governmental transparency, even at the sacrifice of a “normal” life for himself.  So, is he a hero or a traitor?  Strangely enough, the truth is in the viewer’s perception.

Questions for Discussion:

1)       Do you feel that being monitored by the government is an acceptable trade-off for national security?

2)      Do you think Edward Snowden should be extradited and brought to trial?

3)      Are you in favor of drone attacks in foreign countries in order to eliminate terrorist cells, even at the risk of “collateral damage” to civilians?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association