US & Canada

In Washington, reviews of Ed Snowden, the man, remain mixed

Edward Snowden, shown on a screen Image copyright Getty Images

Oliver Stone's new film, Snowden, offers a fresh look at the US intelligence leaker. It could make some people change their minds about him.

Washington is a town of secrets.

The intelligence community, a constellation of agencies known only by their acronyms (CIA, NSA and others), is located in this area.

And Georgetown, an upmarket neighbourhood in the northwest section, is the place where its operatives go to have a beer and share hush-hush tidbits - or to say nothing, depending on their mood.

Image caption Thomas Drake, Jim Bamford, Oliver Stone (2nd R) and Bill Binney were all described as heroes

When Edward Snowden smuggled out classified documents and revealed the government's activities, he upended things dramatically - and pierced the heart of the nation's intelligence-gathering establishment.

It was fitting, then, that a screening of Snowden, the film - and an after-party - was held in this neighourhood last week.

The haters weren't there.

Snowden hits out at critical report

But those who are suspicious of secret government activities - including some who once specialised in them - were.

Director Oliver Stone stood near the doorway of a French restaurant, greeting people as they arrived.

Bartenders served French wine and fancy cocktails - like at a Hollywood cocktail party.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Oliver Stone said the film was based partly on talks with Snowden

Instead of celebrities, though, the room was filled with DC's elite, a group of political operatives, defence analysts and others.

They'd come from a screening of Stone's film in a theatre down the street. The movie opens on 16 September.

Snowden, who lives in Moscow, has been charged with violating the Espionage Act, and he would face decades in prison if convicted.

In Washington, he is persona non grata - and is vilified by an array of powerful people.

His haters did not attend the party - but they made themselves heard this week.

A group of lawmakers denounced Snowden, releasing a report that said he "betrayed his colleagues and his country".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption William Binney, a former NSA analyst (now a whistleblower), admires Snowden

Henry Crumpton, who's served as deputy chief of the CIA's counterterrorism centre, agreed, saying: "He's a traitor."

Those at the White House felt the same way.

"Snowden is accused of leaking classified information and faces felony charges," said National Security Council spokesman Ned Price.

"He should be returned to the US as soon as possible."

The controversy surrounding Snowden reflects a deeper issue, dating back to the al-Qaeda attacks of 2001. Americans are divided in how they feel about the role of the government in preventing another attack, underscoring a tension between civil liberties and national security.

According to a KRC Research poll conducted last year, 64% of Americans have a negative opinion of him.

More than half of Britons said they viewed him in a positive light, however.

The film could sway public opinion, convincing more Americans to see him in a favourable manner.

With that goal in mind, activists started a campaign this week called Pardon Snowden. The party guests were open to the idea.

The anti-Snowden people were not at the after-party, a lively event that spilled out onto the street.

Here a journalist smoked cigarettes with a CIA contractor, and people talked about how much money could be made through cyber-security gigs.

The guests ranged from Tea Party activists to anti-war campaigners.

Stone, who has bushy eyebrows and a gravelly voice, looked around the room and described them all as "a group of friends".

He posed for a picture with "American heroes", as a guest called them.

Image copyright Open Road Films
Image caption Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Snowden in Oliver Stone's new film

Alongside Stone were William Binney, a former NSA technical director; Thomas Drake, another former NSA official who became a leaker (and inspired Snowden); and James Bamford, author of The Puzzle Palace, and other books.

Lawrence Wilkerson, a former Army colonel, was standing near the bar.

Snowden, he told me, is "a truth teller".

The hope is that the film - and Stone's attention - will change how Snowden is perceived, if not in the elite circles of Washington, then in the rest of the country.

The more information people have about the NSA, said Binney, the more they'll understand why Snowden exposed the government's operations.

The film, Binney said, "totally brings out the points so that people will know what's going on".

Through his previous movies, blockbusters such as Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, Stone raised the American public's awareness of governmental failings.

After his film, JFK, was released in 1991, it received scorn from some historians - but officials sped up the declassification of millions of records relating to Kennedy's death.

His new film aims to make people think about Snowden and US history in a radically different fashion.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Medea Benjamin, shown during a protest last year, loved the film

"He is an unreliable narrator," said the Federation of American Scientists' Steven Aftergood, who heads up their project on government secrecy, describing Stone.

"But his films can be tremendously potent on a political level."

When the film starts, Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a skinny guy in glasses sliding through mud during special-forces training in the Georgia woods.

One of the trainers makes it clear that he needs to try harder.

The officer shouts at Snowden, telling him to show where his heart is - inside his chest. Then the trainer yells: "I want you to rip it out."

At the party, Stone seemed nervous about the reception of his film - and a little paranoid.

"Don't give away anything," he told me, asking me not to reveal the plot.

Meanwhile, a Tea Party activist, Tom Whitmore, was chatting with a friend.

The movie "was fantastic", Whitmore said, adding: "The NSA - they do this big dragnet. It gets out of control."

"It makes it all more real," said activist Medea Benjamin about the film.

"You can identify with it. 'Oh, somebody's watching.' That's creepy."

Derek Leebaert, a party guest who creates CIA software, said the film shows how intrusive the surveillance programmes were.

"If this is playing in Kansas City's Cineplex 12," he said, "people are going to be worried."

However ham-fisted, the film raises important questions about government activities.

At the end of the evening, Binney leaned on his cane and talked about the men and women who created the surveillance programmes.

For Binney, these individuals - not Snowden - are the villains.

He said: "The people who did this belong in jail."

Follow @Tara_Mckelvey on Twitter.

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