Over the past few years, the NSA whistleblower's legacy has been hashed out on the big screen in movies like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Furious 7, and Jason Bourne.
At 1:22 p.m. on September 29, 2015, the official Twitter account for USA's hacker drama Mr. Robot sent out a simple message: "Hello, friend."
All by itself, that tweet wouldn't be all that noteworthy; after all, "Hello, friend" has been one of Mr. Robot's most iconic catchphrases from the very beginning. What was interesting the "friend" to whom the tweet was addressed: Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who fled to Russia to avoid prosecution. A couple weeks later, Snowden replied with a quote from Albert Einstein: "The world is a dangerous place not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing."
This is the state of the world in September 2016—a time when the lines between the fictional world of shadowy cyber-surveillance is so indistinguishable from the actual world of shadowy cyber-surveillance that Edward Snowden and Mr. Robot can hat-tip each other online in a way that somehow feels… normal.
It's fitting, then—if not a little belated—that Snowden is making a kind of blockbuster debut in Oliver Stone's Snowden, a biopic (and Oscar hopeful) starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the title role. Technically, Snowden's story was previously told on the big screen in the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour—but where the documentary was a tight, tense look at the unlikely linchpin in the global debate about surveillance, Stone's version is unapologetically lionizing. Just look at the trailer, which casts Snowden as the Captain America-esque protagonist of an almost superheroic origin story: passing a five-hour test in 38 minutes, smuggling out government secrets in a Rubik's cube, and squaring off against an NSA bigwig who is literally named after the villain in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.
But while Snowden's actual story took years to bring to the big screen, the broader implications of his revelations about NSA surveillance gripped Hollywood almost immediately. Of course, Hollywood never exists in a bubble; just as movies influence the context of our broader cultural discourse, our broader discourse influences how movies get made. What's particularly interesting is the seemingly unlikely film genre that has repeatedly and rigorously tackled Snowden: the big-budget popcorn action flick.
It starts, appropriately enough, with the actual Captain America. In 2014's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America is forced to confront his naive idealism about the United States when he learns about Project Insight—a government program aimed at preemptively ferreting out possible threats via mass surveillance. Late in the narrative, the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) pulls a Snowden by leaking all the sordid, clandestine details of Project Insight onto the internet.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier arrived in theaters less than a year after Snowden's revelations were published, and the uncanny echo of the real-life NSA surveillance mechanism wasn't an accident. "We're also very pop-culture-obsessed and we love topicality, so we kept pushing to [have] scenes that, fortunately or unfortunately, played out [during the time that Edward] Snowden outed the NSA. That stuff was already in the zeitgeist," said co-director Anthony Russo in an interview with Film Director International. "We were all reading the articles that were coming out questioning drone strikes, pre-emptive strikes, civil liberties—Obama talking about who they would kill, y'know? We wanted to put all of that into the film because it would be a contrast to Cap's greatest-generation [way of thinking]."
The Winter Soldier was ahead of the curve, but it was also a harbinger of the blockbusters to come. Furious 7, the most recent entry in the Fast & Furious franchise, centers on the hunt for the "God's Eye"—a computer program that enables its user to digitally track down any person in the world. Shortly after the movie's release, one real-life hacker argued that the God's Eye was actually plausible, though it would require "approximately the annual budget of the NSA" to develop.
Snowden's actual story took years to bring to the big screen, but the implications of his revelations about surveillance gripped Hollywood almost immediately.
The list goes on. Spectre, the most recent James Bond movie, sees the entire Double-O program threatened by "Nine Eyes," a mass surveillance program pushed by a sketchy government bigwig. Snowden himself got name-checked during an episode of Fox's resurrection of the paranoiac sci-fi drama The X-Files, and series creator Chris Carter said the comeback was directly inspired by reading headlines about Snowden. "We're trying to be honest with the changes dealing with digital technology: the capability of spying. Clearly we're being spied on in the US—or at least spying on you—and there seems to be no shame in it," Carter said at the Cannes Film Festival. "Every day I look at the newspaper and I see a possible X-Files episode."
But no Hollywood blockbuster has tackled Snowden with more gusto than this summer's Jason Bourne, which returned Matt Damon to the title role for the first time in nearly 10 years for a story that blended the franchise's government conspiracy roots with the Snowden narrative. Snowden himself is explicitly name-checked several times, and the broader implications of his story have been woven into the film's plot, which chronicles a secret government conspiracy to abolish privacy altogether, which kicks off when a Snowden-esque hacker (Julia Stiles) steals top-secret files from her old bosses. How much was Edward Snowden on the minds of the the filmmaking team behind Jason Bourne? Matt Damon, a Snowden admirer, described its setting as "a post-Snowden world," and Doug Liman—who directed the original Bourne Identity and executive-produced the sequels—has actually met with the real Snowden in person.
Of course, we're now on the cusp of a movie that's even more closely based on the story of Edward Snowden: Snowden. And in a final blurring of the lines, Snowden even goes out of its way to give Edward Snowden something to say. By briefly swapping out Joseph Gordon-Levitt for the real deal at the movie's conclusion, Oliver Stone gives Snowden the opportunity to personally deliver his message to moviegoers in thousands of theaters across the globe. "I think the greatest freedom that I've gained is the fact that I no longer have to worry about what happens tomorrow, because I'm happy with what I’ve done today," says the real Snowden. It's hard to imagine a more extreme example of Hollywood's ongoing fascination with Snowden and the full implications of the information he leaked; for a brief moment, the whistleblower becomes the movie star.