Snowden vs. Hollywood

Reel vs Real Politics

by Leon Saunders Calvert Volume 22, Issue 7 / July 2018 16 minutes (3779 words)

The alleged clash between freedom and security turns out to be a chimera… Liberalism and state-interference are not opposed to each other… And the fact that there will always be borderline cases must be welcomed, for without the stimulus of political problems and political struggles of this kind, the citizens’ readiness to fight for their freedom would soon disappear, and with it, their freedom.” 1

Karl Popper

In 2013, following Julian Assange’s Wikileaks disclosures of Bradley (later Chelsea) Manning’s military logs, and not forgetting the revelations of Thomas Andrews Drake, Mark Klein, Thomas Tamm and Russ Tice, the Guardian scooped insights from an NSA insider, Edward Snowden, in which he revealed, through leaking documents to an investigative journalist team, that the NSA has been systematically collecting records on every phone call and email every American makes, has set up an surveillance program ‎which includes reviewing the content of emails, internet searches and chat rooms of foreign nationals overseas (including, notoriously, Angela Merkel), tracks cell phone location data and email address lists from outside the US on a vast scale, has hacked into overseas links between Google’s and Yahoo’s data hubs to accumulate enormous amounts of data subject to no statutory or judicial limits, and has cooperated with Britain’s GCHQ to exploit loopholes that allow NSA to do things GCHQ could not and vice versa. [New York Review of Books.


The developments of the 21st century so far have posed a set of significant challenges for the state intelligence communities in the developed world and for modern media and their unofficial role as the “fourth estate” of government. Intelligence agencies have had to deal with the failure to predict and stop the 9/11 and subsequent terror attacks, as well as the inaccuracies in Iraq’s WMD program which had been used as an argument –the argument– for invasion in the Iraq War. Under pressure these agencies have had to adapt practices to the modern world and technology has played a larger part in intelligence gathering than ever before. The world of traditional media, on the other hand, has seen a worrying trend in which journalistic independence from the state has been replaced by corporate ownership of media institutions carrying strong partisan and special interest agendas packaged up for mass consumption. Traditional media have also faced disruption by the maturing of the online age, as social media, Internet blogging and whistle-blower websites change the way that investigative journalism operates, creates challenges as to how the state, corporations and the media are held to account, and transforms how messages of public interest reach their audience.

The challenges faced by both the intelligence community and media have coalesced around the digitization of whistleblowing, primarily via Wikileaks (with Manning and Assange at the vanguard) and then Snowden. The wiki-sation of whistleblowing has revealed intelligence practices which are of relevance to the public and how it holds security services and the state to account in the freedom versus security debate. The media have also had to undertake some soul searching with regard to how they should work with these new digital hacker media organizations and what role they should play in breaking stories around government secrecy which are premised on the leaking of ‎highly confidential state security documents.

Hollywood has taken these developments and incorporated such themes into major spy movies, both as central to the storyline and as subtext to the narrative. The intention of this article is to surface the political predispositions represented in a number of these films to explicitly recognize the role that the entertainment industry is playing in the wider debate about how Snowden and the implications thrown up by him are to be treated.

Enemy of the State

The first major blockbuster to deal directly with the NSA was Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State, released in 1998 and a spiritual follow up to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film, The Conversation. Gene Hackman plays a former NSA employee who helps Will Smith evade and bring to justice what is depicted as an agency drunk on its own power and with little in the way of checks and balances to stop it. Hackman’s character, Edward Lyle, tells Will Smith’s Robert Clayton Dean, “The government’s been in bed with the entire telecommunications business since the ’40s. They have infected everything. They can get into your bank statements, computer files, e-mail, listen to your phone calls.” Whilst this film predates the leaks under discussion in this article by over a decade it is pertinent because the NSA apparently made a concerted attempt to adjust the public perception of the organization, 2 although this, in hindsight seemed to be short lived.


The first major popular entertainment to factor in the post-Snowden era into its storyline was the television show Homeland. In season 5 we are introduced to Laura Sutton, played by Sarah Sokolovic, a journalist focused on revealing the mass surveillance practices of the CIA whilst based in Berlin working for the philanthropic Düring Foundation. Simon Willmetts articulates with great clarity how she, and by representation all those in favor of leaking the questionable methods of the security services, is portrayed obstinately naïve, childlike in her petulance and desperately unaware of the danger’s she causes with her zeal for transparency. She is “a fictional rebuke to leakers and whistle-blowers such as Edward Snowden… Civil libertarians in Homeland are often portrayed in this way – as well-meaning but ultimately misguided idealists. Conversely, the show’s spies – such as Carrie Mathison, her avuncular former boss, Saul Berenson, and the German BND officer, Astrid – are wise owls, weathered by experience and informed by secret knowledge.” [The Conversation. Ultimately the show is clear that when it comes to the manner in which intelligence is gathered and the surveillance methods used, the security agencies know best, are looking out for our well-being, are self-correcting, and should be left to do their jobs without interference lest we reveal our methods to our enemies. Homeland creates an unhelpful framework of the “opposed worlds of naïve idealism versus time-worn realism” which stymies debate with a false dichotomy.


James Bond also jumped on the bandwagon with the most recent addition to the franchise, Spectre. For those of you have read my previous article on Skyfall I suggested then that, “the one area which the film raises, but does not fully explore, that is genuinely interesting and a modern political and moral dilemma, is the question of what is acceptable state secrecy in a modern democracy? In the world of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, what can be justified as closed information for the few versus open information for the masses? To the degree that we acknowledge the requirements for clandestine intelligence, which Skyfall certainly purports to do (M insists that in order to catch the terrorists they must inhabit the same world in “the shadows”), where do we draw the line and by what means in an open society can the people with this intelligence be held accountable? Great questions, but Skyfall does not do a lot with them.” [Offscreen.

Spectre attempts to address this further and searches for relevance in a post-Snowden world which expands upon the theory proclaimed in Skyfall that field agents are required in the modern era of computer hacking and espionage as they can live “in the shadows” as that’s where the enemy lives. The basic political premise of the film is that modern technological mass surveillance is bad and old school ‎boots on the ground spycraft is good. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw suggested that Spectre was “sexily pro-Snowden”. [The Guardian. I would suggest rather that any attempted seriousness is undermined by the unnecessarily binary nature of the choice which is reactionary by default —old good, new bad.

The film has the antagonists (Blofeld and “C”) argue that out of the bad (terrorist attacks) comes the good (security at the expense of individual freedom) which, in the context of the post-Snowden world, places them as analogous with the US (and UK) governments who have massively extended the reach of surveillance and technology post 9/11. The film also plays into the hands of far-left notions, whose best known proponent is perhaps Gore Vidal, that the West is to blame for all the world’s ills as no real threat exists other than that which we create for ourselves by our imperial treatment of the rest of the world and a biased media.

The unholy alliance between evil corporations and government creates this terrible state of affairs manifest in the form of the Nine-Eyes program (clearly a none too subtle reference to the Five-Eyes intelligence alliance between US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia), and democracy is depicted as a poor defence against it, represented not as a set of institutions designed to balance sovereign power, but as a simplistic voting system in which a single proxy from each country opines in a binary format whether to sign up entirely and without further question to this world-changing ‎initiative.

Finally, the attempts to argue that post 9/11 government policy has been morally wrong is spectacularly undermined by M’s proclamation to Blofeld that he’ll be detained without trial under the post 9/11 act which denies his rights to face the judiciary in a fair hearing with the implication/joke being that he will no doubt be subjected to “enhanced interrogation”. It is a phenomenally conservative ending to a story that seems to think of itself as progressive, railing against the overuse of state power related to security policies that limit individual freedoms.

Jason Bourne

This brings us to the next Hollywood spy with the initials J.B. As per my previously published article on the original Bourne trilogy [Offscreen., these films have always attempted to reflect a degree of political relevance. The trilogy as a whole represents something of a politically progressive ideology, reflective of a critical view of the Bush era. They are an action franchise in which violence is portrayed as damaging for the perpetrator as well as the victim, with stories showing an unusual degree of female empowerment and moral superiority, with the depiction of torture and covert assassinations in a damning light, unlike the glorification of these things as a necessary evil in popular shows such as 24, and in which there is a general confusion and discomfort with America’s place in the world and an unease with the use of its own power. [Patheos. The films celebrate Bourne’s intelligence and internationalism. Even if his capabilities are virtually super-human at least this omnipotence is a source of concern as well as celebration, a proxy for the film’s depiction of Bourne as both the best and the worst of the US political and military system. There are various real life parallels to the storylines in each film including the support of authoritarian regimes which are considered of strategic interest to the US (Identity), US military dehumanisation programs (Identity, Legacy), the political and economic corruption of Russian privatisation (Supremacy), Russia’s state sponsored assassination of dissent (Supremacy), the increased use of drones for surveillance and strikes (Legacy), and the dangers of outsourcing political and military execution to private contractors (Legacy).

For our purposes, however, the third film, The Bourne Ultimatum, is uncannily prophetic in its ripped from the headlines plot which involves a Guardian journalist breaking a story on the unsanctioned and unchecked actions of the government’s war on terror (he is first identified via an all-encompassing surveillance system which picks up a keyword uttered over a cellphone), including state sponsored torture and assassinations, often carried out overseas and violating the sovereignty of other nation states. The journalist uses a whistleblower from within the security services and the film ends with the revealing of these covert methods to the press for public debate about their legality. The film preceded the Wikileaks/Guardian revelations on the Afghan and Iraq war logs by about 3 years, and beat Snowden by 6 years.

It is therefore apt that the next instalment in the series by Greengrass and Damon, 2016’s Jason Bourne, would try to replicate that same urgency with regard to the geo-political affairs of the moment and bottle it for mass consumption. At the very beginning of the production of the film Matt Damon is quoted as saying, “We always looked at those movies as really about the Bush presidency, and so we kind of had to wait for the world to change… Without giving too much of it away, it’s Bourne through an austerity-riddled Europe and in a post-Snowden world. It seems like enough has changed, you know? There are all these kinds of arguments about spying and civil liberties and the nature of democracy… We’re starting in Greece, you know, the beginning of democracy, and the movie ends in Las Vegas, the most grotesque incarnation of…. There’s been the financial collapse, the great recession, all these issues of cyberwarfare and civil liberties.” [BuzzFeed.

Early in the film we find Nicky Parson’s, played by Julia Stiles, hacking into US secret files in Reykjavik which ties her to a symbolic centre for the war on secrecy given that Wikileaks played a major role in the Icelandic financial crisis pre-Manning. As always with these films the locations play an important role in mapping the geo-political landscape, the Las Vegas finale working as connective tissue to Silicon Valley and the link between national security practices and social media (Google, Facebook, etc.) in enabling state sponsored mass surveillance.

The Christian Dassault character, played by Vinzenz Keifer, is clearly supposed to be a stand in for Julian Assange. The film and Bourne appear critical of him as someone who reveals information with no thought to consequences and with no consideration paid to the protection or wellbeing of sources. Bourne tells him, “I’m not on your side” and had previously warned Nicky Parsons from engaging with Dassault as it might get her killed.

Bourne’s own whistleblowing at the end of The Bourne Ultimatum is problematized too as The Asset, incarnated in this film by Vincent Cassel. He is identified as a Blackbriar agent who was undercover when his operation was revealed by Bourne and who was subsequently tortured by the enemy. If Dassault is Assange then this makes Bourne/Nicky/Landy the equivalent of Manning (the insider’s willing to leak info).

Direct commentary on Snowden is limited although he is called out by name on a few occasions (which is slightly odd since the film went to considerable pains to create proxies for Assange and Zuckerberg [Aaron Kalloor and his company Deep Dream]). Clearly it is deemed by the CIA that Bourne’s whistleblowing has done damage to them and to security measures and initiatives. We must infer the film’s opinion on Snowden through its treatment of other characters.

Aaron Kalloor’s (played by Riz Ahmed) central role in the plot implies that the social media Silicon Valley ventures and their entrepreneurs are unwilling but conscious participants in the mass surveillance instituted and funded by the security services. Kalloor’s conscience brings him to try to blow the whistle on the malpractice and strong-arming of the security services even if it means undermining his own company to do so. He is prevented only because of their desperate and extreme measures in an attempting to assassinate him.

Alicia Vikander’s Heather Lee, head of cybercrime at the CIA, uses aggressive hacking techniques to try to silence security breaches (such as by Nicky Parsons) and extensive, near omniscient, surveillance methods for tracking targets and supporting assassination attempts. Nevertheless, she is clearly in favour of bringing Bourne in rather than killing him, although how much of this is merely pragmatic is less clear, given her closing line in the film about being willing to sacrifice Bourne if she cannot turn him in.

Opening up access to secret information in the film is broadly deemed as a good thing. It identifies malfeasance on the part of the CIA in its recruitment of Bourne by killing his father and framing terrorists. Bourne appears to recognize the need to protect the country against external enemies, despite the series being founded on rooting out internal malpractice, although he cannot reconcile himself to the violence that this seemingly requires —“I’m trying to find another way” he says to Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones)— and remains unreconciled to the fact that he would have to become part of the system he so mistrusts in order to defend his country. The film depicts the mass sharing of this information as more problematic though. Bourne resists agreeing to let Dassault publish the files he brings to him, and Kalloor’s big reveal of DEEP Dream’s dirty secret of collusion with the CIA’s Iron Hand program (akin to Spectre’s Nine Eyes or the real-life NSA PRISM program) almost but never quite makes a public appearance.

It would seem that the film concludes that knowledge and transparency of intelligence gathering techniques are important but careful sharing of this information is required, rather than the mass dumping of it. The treatment is hardly sophisticated but it is certainly a more nuanced perspective than the positions of Homeland and Spectre, respectively.

Hollywood got round to depicting Snowden directly by way of the 2016 Oliver Stone biopic, Snowden, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.


One of the more interesting aspects of the film is how Stone’s political interests, broadly left-wing, find common ground in Edward Snowden’s story, despite his conservative ideology. Based on my understanding of Snowden’s political worldview, including insights from one of the books Stone’s film is based on, Luke Harding’s, The Snowden Files, we find ourselves in a debate about the foundation of Snowden’s contrarianism, his non-compliance, his anti-conformity. The film’s author depicts Snowden as being radicalized, partly by his girlfriend and partly by his experiences working for the intelligence agencies. Without closer knowledge of Snowden’s articulated perspectives, the director’s voice wins out over his subject and reminds us to be vigilant with regard to filmic representation of real events, real people, and their real ideologies.

When studying film we should remember that no depiction is ideologically pure, “observation is always selective. It needs a chosen object, a definite task, an interest, a point of view, a problem.” 3 Depicting reality is impossible. There is always a choice that has to be made, consciously or not, about what to show and how to show it, and this soaks the film in meaning, intentionally or not. Stone’s Snowden brings this issue to the fore.

The film hints at Snowden’s right wing ideology early on with his refusal to sign the anti-war petition but, despite his disagreement with Lindsay, this is never expanded on such that we understand his support for the war. The film, and Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), suggest he becomes more liberal over time but this itself is highly selective and a gross over-simplification and the implication that a newly found left wing political stance is the reason for his whistleblowing is misleading and says more about Stone’s political attitudes than Snowden’s. In reality, Snowden’s horror of, and resistance to, the breadth of unchecked surveillance comes from a conservative political position and hits at the heart of two unreconciled elements of the typical right wing ideology —unhesitating support for national defence, intelligence and military spending, but with a high degree of scepticism about the size and power of government. When these two are forced against each other Snowden found himself to be more concerned about the latter, despite being a servant of the former for most of his career.

There is a very pertinent moment near the end of the film during a montage of the media response to the stories created by the Snowden leaks, in which Donald Trump is seen suggesting that the appropriate response to Snowden’s actions is to execute him. During the making and release of the film Trump had not yet won the presidency but with this clip the film offers an additional degree of pointedness that could not have been fully recognized at the time of filming —if the progressive and intellectual powerhouse that was Obama was not responsive enough to civil liberties for Snowden’s liking then the populist rantings of the newly incumbent president, when combined with the gangster leadership of Putin, leaves the viewer in state of considerable unease about the prospects for Snowden’s ability to return to the US on his own accord to a fair and open trial. Snowden himself warned, in his interviews from Hotel Mira in Hong Kong, that with the powers that have been created by the NSA, one day “a new leader will be elected” and “they’ll find the switch”, which could lead to what he described as “turncoat tyranny”. The effect of this now is perhaps more chilling than when it was stated during the Obama presidency.

Perhaps the most powerful case for Snowden as whistleblower rather than traitor is played out in the newspaper headlines in the films credits [The New York Times. which report on the decisions made by the courts and the government to reduce the all-encompassing surveillance methods due to the ruling that they have exceeded legality.

If Snowden’s intent was truly and simply to bring this debate into public discourse such that the governed can have a say in what the government is doing in their name, as was Snowden’s claim in Laura Poitras’s superb documentary, Citizenfour, I think we can say that this has been achieved. To quote Snowden, “I don’t want to be the person making the decisions on what should be public and what shouldn’t. Which is why, rather than publishing these on my own, or putting them out openly, I’m running them through journalists. So that my bias, you know, and my things… Because clearly I have some strongly held views, are removed from that equation, and the public interest is being represented in the most responsible manner” (from Citizenfour).

The American film industry has had a multi-faceted response to his revelations and have contributed, albeit mostly in a rather unnuanced way based on the examples we have explored, to the dialogue he was intending to generate. I suspect the final word on this issue is far from over, and perhaps is necessarily always out of our grasp.


  1. Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, 1, Plato, First Princeton Paperback Printing, 1971, p111.
  2. Time magazine.
  3. Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, Routledge; 2 edition (2 May 2002), p61.

Snowden vs. Hollywood

Leon Saunders Calvert works in a financial information media company in London. He has a BA Hons from the University of Essex in Philosophy and Literature, including film studies, and an MSc in International Management from the University of Reading. He believes that the study of philosophy and culture can be fundamental to providing us with a better understanding of the world we live in and the ways in which it can be improved, rather than undertaken as a kind of intellectual workout, as is so often the case. Leon has published reviews in Film International and The Film Journal.

Volume 22, Issue 7 / July 2018 Essays   edward snowden   oliver stone   paul greengrass   political cinema   spy film