How long till Hollywood hammers out the story of the NSA leaker on the silver screen? Last year the buzz started on several projects, with at least one film slated to come out in the autumn. But what kind of movies will we get? And, will anyone want to see them?
Hollywood’s first problem is this doesn’t seem to be the movie the movie-going public is anticipating. “For all the attention generated by the controversy over Edward Snowden’s disclosures of U.S. spying operations,” The Los Angles Times recently reported, “much of the public has paid little attention to the details of the policy debate over government surveillance, polls have shown.”
For sure it would be a big mistake to open the film opposite the third installment of the Hunger Games franchise.
The second problem for the screenwriters is crafting a film that even those who closely follow the issue will want to sit through. After all stories like this don’t pact much drama. The 2010 film The Social Network (about the founding of Facebook) might have suckered Tinsel Town into thinking it could crank out “geek” hits one after the other. But an almost identical movie, Jobs (2013), sputtered at the box office. Even more worrisome for those anxious to bring Snowden to the big screen is the fate of The Fifth Estate (2013), the biopic of Wikileaks founder Jullian Assange. In many ways a Snowden movie would be the same story–individual leaks US government secrets and lives with the consequences. After the release of the Assange film Bloomberg reported, “[f]inally, we can put a price of a sort on leaking state secrets: $1.7 million. That was the breathtakingly dismal box-office tally this past weekend for The Fifth Estate….”
To make Snowden succeed on the screen, the filmmakers will have to deliver drama. Both The Fifth Estate and Jobs had strong acting and decent scripts–but they lacked a compelling reason for most movie-goers to fill seats–a gripping narrative that most of us cared about.
Hollywood will have to add spice, simplify, and stretch the truth if they want make a hit. That’s the lesson of American Hustle (2013) which has about as much to do with the criminal cases in ABSCAM as Birth of a Nation (1915) had to do with reconstruction; or The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) that turned a career in crime into a three-hour drug-fueled sex party. Both were “based” on true stories. They turned truth into good films–by selectively employing the truth.
With Snowden, the screenwriters will have a couple of options. First, they don’t have to make a movie about the NSA-leaker. The film could focus on Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who put the leaked material in the public space. Greenwald is an interesting character and has a book in the works. Making the film about reporting on Snowden might work well. There is good precedent for that approach, All the President’s Men (1976) won an Oscar, with a film about reporters investigating Watergate.
If the film is going to feature Snowden then the easiest way to go for the gold is to turn him into a hero. There are two options here. One could be portray him as an innocent, naive but patriotic and spirited patriot who stumbles on the truth and fights to bring it the public. That approach hit it out of the park in the 1975 spy-thriller Three Days of the Condor, with Robert Redford uncovering a nefarious CIA-plot to wreck turmoil in the Middle East.
The alternative is to make Snowden a crusader who knew from the start what he was getting into, penetrated the NSA like James Bond, and then in a daring escape gets the goods out of the country. Basically, the screenwriters could just take the script of the recently released Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit–switch names, countries and villains and they would be good to go.
If the filmmakers really want to make Snowden a complex ambivalent character that we are not sure if we loathe or admire then they are going to need some other dramatic trope to drive the film. The best choice would be to argue there really is a deep dark conspiracy to worry about. That’s the course Oliver Stone took in the 1991 film JFK, basically taking the KGB cover-story Moscow peddled to put some distance between the Kremlin and the Kennedy assassination by claiming the killing was engineered by the CIA, and then making it into a movie.
A gutsy (and very un-Hollywood) alternative would be to portray Snowden as the bad guy. After all, there is no question he has compromised legitimate intelligence operations of several Western powers, not just the United States. Further, some US officials have claimed he may be a foreign agent. That would be taking the story in a direction that would thrill and outrage in equal numbers.
Of course none of these treatments of the Snowden story might come close to adding up to the truth.
The only truth we know for sure about the Snowden saga is that it isn’t over yet and there is more to come out. For filmmakers wanting to cash in on all the attention to the NSA leaker they will have no choice but to make their movie in the middle of the story and make up their heels and heroes for themselves.
If they are smart they will try to make an engaging movie–rather than think they can get to the “truth” on screen–anymore than the 1962 epic How the West Was Won actually told as anything much about how the west was really won.
Nor should movie-goers go to an Edward Snowden-inspired film thinking they are going to get a real history lesson. Movies are not the place to adjudicate vital matters of privacy and national security. “As for what is to be done with Snowden and the NSA, the answer is simple. The case should be settled on its own merits,” not the whimsy of Hollywood or our ideological preferences.