Journalism and society

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Snowden by Oliver Stone and Citizenfour by Laura Poitras

Snowden (2016) directed by Oliver Stone is an enthralling story of Edward Joseph Snowden’s world in the intelligence community, how it began 9 years ago, his experience and thought process that ultimately led to his estrangement with the American intelligence community. The film from my interpretation is about a moral dilemma Snowden is faced with as an intelligence officer. After joining the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), he is tasked with surveilling private public information which he knows is in contradiction to the constitution. It doesn’t end there as he discovers the inner workings of the National Security Agency (NSA) include unauthorized inserting of harmful computer malware into the infrastructure of countries friendly to the United States. This was done so that in the unlikely event the countries relations with the government would change, the US would have a strategic advantage during negotiations or in the worst case scenario, war. This brings Snowden into the realization that what the American intelligence community is doing is ethically and fundamentally wrong and decides to furnish established journalists with this information.

Citizenfour (2014) by Laura Poitra on the other hand is a documentary film about Snowden’s journey from when he makes the decision to contact an American documentary film director and come forward with information about the National Security Agencies illegal tapping practices. Although the main story of this film revolves around Snowden’s leakage of egregious misconduct in the intelligence community, it is different from Snowden (2016) as the story focuses more on the American film directors telling of Edward Snowden’s story. It is not a dramatization of events that took place but the film rather takes as back and reveals the unfolding of event at the time it happened. The film’s key focus was in bringing to the attention of the public about malpractices of these intelligence agencies with short vignette interviews throughout the film from Snowden, Will Binney and others about NSA programs. In both of this films, Snowden has the company and support of Guardian investigative reporter Glenn Greenwald and the American film director Laura Poitras who play a very vital role in Snowden’s success.

Snowden (2016) was received well albeit having mixed reviews. One director, Thierry Fremaux, described the film as a good compliment for the film Citizenfour which had been released two years earlier (Calvario 2015). The film had a modest approval rating of 62% in a popular critique website Rotten Tomatoes with the take away being that the director Oliver played it too safe by taking away some of the impact out of the story (Calvario 2015).

Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour on the other hand garnered critical acclaim from numerous critique academies, magazines and websites. It has amazing ratings on two of the very popular critique websites Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic indicating universal acclaim. Ronnie Scheib (2014) in his review of Citizenfour wrote “no amount of familiarity with Edward Snowden actually prepares you for the impact that this film has on you”. He, Scheib, continues on to say Laura Poitras film is extraordinary and concisely brings out details in real time of how Snowden and his fellow associates planned to bring to the world this shocking revelations. The film got nominated in many movie award ceremonies and won most of them. Time magazine rated it as its number 8 movie in the top 10 movies for that year (Corliss 2014).

As aforementioned, Stone’s Snowden (2016) is a dramatization of the events that happened leading to and after Edward Snowden’s revealing of massive wiretapping of the public by American Intelligence Agencies. Citizenfour on the other hand is a real time filming of the events that happened by the actual people involved. Snowden and Citizenfour are therefore different with this respect. However, the facts of the story remain unadulterated and hence the two films have a similar plot. I nonetheless agree with Calvario’s premise that Oliver Stone’s film took away a huge part of the intensity that was in Citizenfour (2015).

Edward Snowden’s view of journalism is that of a watchdog to the society. It is like a light that sheds the truth into the eyes of the otherwise ignorant public and seeks to find amends to the injustices done by the corrupt. From both films, it was evident that Snowden considered no other alternative besides journalism to broadcast this truth. He believed that he could find journalists that were incorruptible and could not be silenced. He contacted “the guardian”, an established press organization, to publish his story and sought out intelligence reporter Ewen MacAskill and journalist Glenn Greenwald. Snowden possessed a very just attitude towards journalism seen in the way he viewed his beliefs of the core values of journalism. As he talks to Glenn Greenwald in Snowden (2016), he expresses he is not interested in any monetary gain and that he only wants to present his information to journalists who would present it to the world for people, through their own discretion, decide what is right and wrong. Snowden had the notion that he is accountable for others people’s lives.

Snowden’s approach is a much harder approach than WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks is an organization that began in 2006 that publishes clandestine information from anonymous sources. Internet activist Julian Assange is widely perceived as the director of WikiLeaks. The fundamental difference between the Snowden’s approach and WikiLeaks is that the sources providing WikiLeaks with this information remains anonymous. There is no face behind the bombshell stories and unearthing of scandals and conspiracies. In this way, the people who send this information secretly to WikiLeaks are unknown and therefore cannot be held into account by any government or organization. Edward Snowden’s approach is fraught with peril, intimidation and even death threats forcing him to seek asylum in a foreign country.

Edward Snowden is faced with a dilemma after he discovers he is working for a lying government that does not respect the freedom of privacy of its own citizens. This government routinely spies on the private information of innocent people, prying on their messages, emails, calls and social media. It is not warranted by the courts and therefore unconstitutional. Snowden knows this is wrong and cannot live with this knowledge bearing his conscience so what must he do? Should he go against his own government and risk going to jail? Is it worth it? I believe Edward Snowden like other whistleblowers are unsung heroes of our society. Edward Snowden disregarded his well-paying salary working with the CIA, comfortable life and house to stand with what is right. His selfless act of patriotism, pointing out the fault in the government does not make him a villain but rather one of the finest heroes of our era.

In conclusion, Edward Snowden’s story shows us how journalism plays an important role in the democracy of a country. You have the press to go to when things go wrong and you are threatened by the government (Snowden 2015). It has helped me have a better sense of appreciation for journalists.


Snowden. (2016). [film] Oliver Stone

Citizenfour. (2014). [film] Laura Poitras

Calvario, Liz. (2015). Thierry Fremaux: Festival Director Reveals Real Reason Oliver Stone’s “Snowden Isn’t Going to Cannes

Scheib, Ronnie. (2014). Film Review: Citizenfour

Corliss, Richard. (2014). Review: Citizenfour Is This Halloween’s Scariest Chiller