Edward Snowden’s decision to leak thousands of government files caused shockwaves across the world and divided the opinions of his countrymen - four years after the act, the 33-year-old is still viewed as both a hero and a villain. Now, Snowden’s actions are to be given the Hollywood treatment, with controversial director Oliver Stone in the director’s chair and Joseph Gordon-Levitt taking on possibly his most divisive role to date.
In December 2012, for better or for worse, Snowden changed the world. Since that point, the man behind the single largest leak of government secrets in history has been a talking point across the globe, being simultaneously labelled a patriot and defender of free speech, and a traitor.
Now, the Snowden story is finally getting the cinematic adaptation that the magnitude of its impact on international relations deserves. With Stone at the helm and the supremely-talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the lead, Snowden is sure to generate heated discussion and has at its very core the basic cinematic ingredients guaranteed to catch the eye of the Academy Awards voters come 2017.
“Oliver Stone is one of the most courageous and questioning directors in America,” the 35-year-old Gordon-Levitt says. “He’s not afraid to ask hard questions about government policy and decisions that he feel run counter to basic tenets of the US constitution.”
And what of Snowden’s own relationship with the constitution and, by default, his native country? “This is someone who enlisted in the US Army in 2004 with the intention to go fight in Iraq and put his life on the line for his country,” Gordon-Levitt explains. “But those same values and principles led him to believe that what his country was doing (with respect to NSA surveillance of US citizens) was wrong. He's someone who is very passionate about what he believes in and that's what led him to risk his life and freedom to defend principles that are so important to him.”
The aftermath of the leaks caused huge geo-political repercussions across the world, and ignited a fierce debate about the breadth of state surveillance and its role in modern society. The “Snowden Effect”, as it was subsequently termed, had lasting ramifications in the world of technology as well.
Cloud-based service such as Google, Cisco and AT&T, all of whom had had information tapped by the National Security Agency, saw revenues fall due to public outcry over their roles in propagating the widespread surveillance. Paranoia regarding the long reach of the US intelligence service reached an all-time high. No encryption was safe enough and company-wide refusals regarding the presence of “back-doors” through which the NSA could access private information were met with doubt and scepticism.
Before long, the Snowden Effect had trickled down into consumer products. The Apple update for iOS 8 made data encryption automatic, with Google’s Android swiftly following suit. In June 2014, SGP technologies - the lovechild of encrypted communications firm Silent Circle and Spanish smartphone manufacturers GeeksPhone - released a new post-Snowden product onto the market: the Blackphone. Paying homage to the pigment most associated with hackers and their ilk, the Blackphone was a new breed of telecommunication device, built with total and utter information privacy in mind.
“We know how the internet and communications technology makes our lives better and more convenient, and it provides knowledge and information, but now we know we should question what else might be going on,” nods Gordon-Levitt. “Before Edward Snowden, we weren’t asking those questions.”
Snowden appears keen to stay out of the direct spotlight - possibly due to the threat of extradition and prosecution by the US government that continuously hangs over him. His arrival on social media platform Twitter last year, however, during which he amassed over one million followers in 24 hours, shows the lasting significance of Snowden as a public figure.
He continues to take a stand against invasive state surveillance, most recently urging his followers to avoid new Google smart messaging app, Allo, which he maintains will store huge amounts of personal information that is readily available to government intelligence services.
Even so, for Snowden’s private life to be given the Hollywood treatment seems incongruous with his attempts to stay under the radar. “My suspicion is that he was willing to go along with things because it keeps the discussion going, which is exactly what he wanted to accomplish in the first place,” says Gordon-Levitt, who studied Snowden in depth for months in the lead-up to filming.
But even an actor as respected as Gordon-Levitt is affected by the nature of Snowden’s persona, the huge question-marks that still linger over his actions, and the divisions over whether to accept the whistle-blower as a hero or a villain. “I had some people telling me that playing a very polarising figure might not be the best career move I could make,” he admits. “But I believed that this was an important film and I was going to do it no matter what.”