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Falling in love with the national security state

Romantic comedies help me get through long international flights. On a recent trip to Hong Kong, however, I decided to take a risk by departing from my standard viewing practice to watch Oliver Stone’s Snowden, a political thriller about the whistleblower who pulled back the curtain of the surveillance state by exposing how the NSA threatens the privacy of just about everyone. Would this movie set me on edge, making me fearful and paranoid for the remainder of the flight?

I need not have worried at all, since the film is essentially shot as a love story. To the extent that Snowden is a romance, it mistakes the true nature of surveillance and intelligence gathering by representing matters of national security as affairs of the heart.

The pivotal issue of Snowden is not whether the NSA is scooping up phone records. The audience already knows that story from the headlines that grabbed international attention in 2013 and 2014. Instead, the question raised by Stone’s script is whether a shy young man with off-the-charts computing skills will disclose his most private feelings to the free-spirited woman who enters his life. The true revelations are not about illegal government surveillance but the surprising charms of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who, in all his nerdy vulnerability, plays the private security contractor who leaked the secrets of the NSA.

Will Joseph end up with Shailene Woodley, his love interest in the film? Will Shailene learn to trust a man who possesses and is possessed by so many secrets that he can’t really open up, either emotionally or practically, in the way women in movies today expect? (If using the actors’ first names seems catty, it’s rather that each is so personable and friendly.)

By the time that the real Edward Snowden makes a cameo in the film, his appearance seems gratuitous, since the script has already suggested that the drama transpiring between Joseph and Shailene is far more interesting and significant than anything happening between the national security state and its citizens.

For the economy-class traveler, trapped on a 14-hour flight across the international dateline, Snowden comes tantalizing close to a satisfying experience. Were it not for Snowden’s cameo in the final scenes, one might readily enjoy the film as the romantic comedy it was never meant to be.

Nonetheless, Joseph and Shailene’s characters are clearly meant to be together. The only thing standing in their way is the NSA. A close-up shot of a laptop camera, innocently left open in the bedroom, implies that the US government is getting its jollies by snooping on moments of private intimacy. Where Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice only had to contend with the hauteur of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the romantic couple in Snowden has to withstand the invasion of privacy perpetrated by shadowy, but all-powerful government agencies.

In the end, then, it is not love but the right to privacy that conquers all. At this level, our telegenic lovers fade into the background and the true hero emerges: the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees people the right to be secure in their “houses, papers, and effects,” and, we might add, their e-mails, web searches, and viewing habits. This emphasis upon privacy centers on single entities, not collective ones, which is perfectly consistent with the reliance on a single individual—Snowden—to encapsulate a complex set of issues involving national security and surveillance.

Ordinarily, entertainment allows us to take pleasure in the subject of a biopic who stands in for events of broad historical significance. Surely, Stone has had success with Nixon, JFK, and The Doors in commenting on American history by focusing on individuals who are both representative of and exceptional to their eras. But the electronic eavesdropping of all phone calls, or the ability record the subjects of all web searches, are hardly ordinary.

National security at this level entails the compilation and storage of aggregate data. No one is specifically targeted because under mass surveillance everyone is already suspected.

When it comes to understanding the intricacies of national security, a romance about two people can be seductive. It allows us to enjoy the feeling that the big, bad security state, with its unimaginable capacity to intrude on our most private moments, is the principal villain that individual citizens like us face. Equally, if not more concerning, is that surveillance and security depend on indiscriminate power– that is, power that does not discriminate among individuals but instead, in the words of the NSA mandate, endeavors to “collect it all.”

Featured image credit: Snowden © Open Road Films. Used with permission from Open Road Films.

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