We Steal Secrets, and They’re All Boring: Hollywood vs. the Internet

So there’s a new movie coming out about Edward Snowden, apparently, directed by Oliver Stone and based on The Snowden Files by Luke Harding of the Guardian. Much has been made of Stone’s status as a “controversial” filmmaker—he directed W. and Nixon—and he’s reportedly said that he thinks of Snowden as a hero, not a traitor, so—

—you know what, I don’t really care.

Well—about Snowden, certainly, I care. I care about the NSA and its various abuses of modern technology for the purposes of mass surveillance. I care about questions of security vs. liberty, and I care about Tor and the EFF and the Freedom of the Press Foundation and other people fighting for my civil liberties online, and I care about James Clapper, and I care about Glenn Greenwald, and I care about the Guardian.

But for God’s sake, I can’t bring myself to care about another Hollywood interpretation of Internet goings-on that doesn’t look like it’ll understand the first thing about the story it’s telling.

The most recent well-known film about the Internet was The Fifth Estate, about Wikileaks and Julian Assange, which, disclaimer, I did not see. I did, however, note its overwhelmingly negative reception (37% on Rotten Tomatoes).

Compare this with 2010’s The Social Network, which—yeah, yeah, nobody wants to hear about The Social Network. Nobody wants to remake The Social Network, nobody wants to remake The Social Network, it’s its own movie, any attempt to imitate it is going to look like, well, an imitation.

But regardless: we do have to admit that TSN got something right, and that TFE got something very, very wrong. And that something is, I think, what’s going to make Stone’s adaptation of Snowden’s story work—or not work.

The main criticism of TSN from the people it portrayed—particularly from its main character, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg—is its inaccuracies. To give the most glaring example: in the movie, Facebook is born from a bad breakup. Zuckerberg is dumped by his girlfriend, Erica, and promptly goes on a bitter, misogynistic coding spree with his college friends. In real life, meanwhile, the breakup never happened. Erica is fiction.

Criticism of TFE, meanwhile, was dramatically different: sure, the movie was more or less accurate, but, to put it crudely, it still sucked. The acting was decent, but the direction wasn’t the script was melodramatic and overlong, the thriller didn’t thrill. Good story, maybe—bad movie, definitely.

So, what, the secret to a good movie is getting the facts wrong? Of course not; if that were true, there’d be no good documentaries.

What comes to my mind is the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten, one that didn’t come from a book or a good teacher, but from my father, a legal editor and philosophy major. The two of us were leaving the movie theater after a particularly awful zombie movie—World War Z, with Brad Pitt—talking about how much we’d disliked it. As we stepped onto the escalator, my dad turned to me. “Good zombie movies,” he said, “are never about the zombies.”

Bad zombie movies are about zombies, easy and simple. Zombies attack, our heroes run away, augh eating brains, ew shambling corpses. Good zombie movies, though? Good zombie movies are about people surviving in extraordinary situations—about the fear of losing free will and becoming a monster—about desperation, about hope, about loneliness, about grief.

Which is why I don’t have high hopes for the Snowden movie, no matter who’s directing it, no matter how controversial they promise it’ll be. I’m not interested in hearing directors say Edward Snowden is a hero or Edward Snowden is a traitor, I’m not interested in hearing them say This story is thrilling. I know that, for God’s sake. I can learn that from the news.

What I am interested in hearing is, This is a story about making difficult choices. Or, This is a story about betrayal. Or, This is a story about what liberty means.

Or something—anything—that will make me believe they understand the most important thing about making these kinds of movies: that the world’s changed, but people haven’t; that the most interesting thing about the affairs of humanity is still humans and human moments; that storytelling isn’t about writing down things that happened, but writing down things that are true.

That bad Internet movies are about the Internet, but good Internet movies are always, always about people.

And until I hear that, I think I’ll go and spend my money on Guardians of the Galaxy.


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