How Much of Snowden is Actually True?

‘Snowden’ is the story of the eponymous character who works for the CIA. He eventually becomes a whistleblower after leaking some confidential information regarding mass surveillance by the government that implicates the National Security Agency. Directed by Oliver Stone, the cast includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, and Zachary Quinto. In this article, we take a look at which events inspired the story.

Is Snowden Based on a True Story?

Yes, ‘Snowden’ is based on a true story. In fact, it is about the former CIA employee and subcontractor who, in 2013, started copying and leaking extremely confidential and private information about mass surveillance being carried out by the National Security Agency. The event wreaked havoc globally, with many questioning the practices of the United States government. The public was, nonetheless, divided between calling him a traitor or a patriot.

To say that he was, and still is, one of the most controversial figures of the decade is not an understatement. When he was 29-years-old, Snowden gave the top-secret documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Barton Gellman, and Ewen MacAskill, who then published the information on platforms like The Guardian and The Washington Post. He was working for Booz Allen Hamilton in Hawaii when he became paranoid about the programs he was involved in.

Although he had tried to take this ethical issue up with his superiors, his requests were ignored, following which he downloaded close to 1.5 million files before leaving for Hong Kong. There, Snowden proceeded to hand over the precious documents to the media personnel, and we all know what happened after that. But the whistleblower was charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and theft of government property by the United States Department of Justice.

Following that, Snowden’s American passport was cancelled. Eventually, Russia gave him asylum. (As of 2020, he has been granted permanent residency). Talking about the aftermath of the leaks, Snowden said, “I was very much a person the most powerful government in the world wanted to go away. They did not care whether I went away to prison. They did not care whether I went away into the ground. They just wanted me gone.”

‘Snowden’ is actually based on two books – ‘The Snowden Files’ (Luke Harding) and ‘Time of the Octopus’ (Anatoly Kucherena). The latter is authored by Edward Snowden’s lawyer from whom the director received a call. Then, a meeting was set up. Going into more detail about the inspiration behind his vision, Stone said, “But it was a fictional book. He had fictionalized it. And it was an interesting Russian novel. Very Dostoevsky. Really it’s about a young man from America who comes over and reveals a 1984 world.”

He added, “I didn’t know at that point in time whether we were going to make a fictional movie with an unnamed character, or else we would make the story as realistic as possible about Snowden, because I didn’t know if Snowden would cooperate.” It is also noteworthy that Stone was right, as initially, the former CIA subcontractor was hesitant about the movie.

However, the director also recalled that over the course of a few meetings, his subject started opening up a lot more to the idea – “And he said that it was sort of an inevitability about a movie getting made, that he doesn’t have any rights because he’s in exile, and so forth and so on.” Edward Snowden did not receive any monetary compensation from the movie and was not given script approval either. 

The production met with many challenges from its inception to the end. For one, no studio wanted to finance such a politically driven project. Stone said, “We live in that climate – this is definitely, I believe, self-censorship.” Furthering this sentiment, he added, “I don’t believe the NSA called anybody and said ‘don’t do this,’ Who knows? But the truth is … you either join the club or you’re excluded.”

Eventually, however, the film received funding and the rest is history. Many criticize Snowden and feel as though his intentions were not patriotic by a long shot. In fact, they think that he has hindered efforts pertaining to national security and that he is just a glorified conspirator when all is said and done. Chris Inglis, who is the former Deputy Director of the NSA, seemingly agrees with some of these claims, although he is not as rigid as many of Snowden’s opposers.

Talking about the movie, he said, “Dramatization to me means you add the occasional exclamation point. You bring in a musician to perhaps add some background music. But you don’t tell a story that is fiction.” Although Inglis accepted that the motives of the protagonist are definitely nuanced, he also stated, “But broadly, when I stood back, the story that was told [in the movie] was a gross mischaracterization of what NSA’s purposes are.”

He added, “And a gross exaggeration of Edward Snowden’s own particular role in that. To the point where you could come away from looking at that movie, saying why are 50,000 people at the NSA dead wrong? And one is absolutely correct?” On that note, we would just like to say that it is necessary to remember that even though the movie is based on a true story, it is still a dramatized version of what really transpired.

Read More: Where Was Snowden Filmed?