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Review: The Terminal (2013)

As the country continues to pursue Edward Snowden real life politics has become a movie.

This summer’s blockbuster is a remake of Steven Spielberg’s 2004 romantic comedyThe Terminal. The main figure in the earlier film, Viktor—played somewhat awkwardly by Tom Hanks, affecting a nondescript all-purpose Eastern European accent—is trying to immigrate to New York. He becomes stranded in Kennedy Airport, however, when his home country suddenly undergoes a violent coup and no longer officially exists.

In this 2013 remake, director Glenn Greenwald reverses the East-West aspects of the earlier plot and blends the Spielberg film’s storyline with elements of the 1998 Will Smith/Gene Hackman action flickEnemy of the State. Result: instead of a comedy we now have an international thriller. Edward Snowden plays a former U.S. spy agency contractor who is stranded in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport after he reveals that an invisible coup has occurred in the United States, and the US government is no longer what its citizens think it is.

The thread connecting the two films is that both central figures—Viktor and Edward—are so honest, straightforward, and devoid of hidden motives that their simplest words and acts make the officials trying to deal with them look bad by contrast. When the officials continue to operate as rule-bound, duplicitous, and sometimes vindictive servants of the institution, we become appalled by both the bureaucracies they serve and their own limited moral imaginations.

Snowden, depicted as a computer systems expert employed first by the CIA and then by giant private contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, is moved by conscience and love of country to reveal to the public “that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.” Fearing reprisals from the administration and its security apparatus—correctly, as it turns out—, Snowden travels abroad before his revelations are released. He first takes refuge in Hong Kong, where he believes (mistakenly) he will be granted asylum. There he issues a series of disclosures, each more shocking than the one before, and becomes the target of an international manhunt.

The manhunt is standard thriller material, with a range of international locations reminiscent of the Bourne series. This is supplemented by the usual obligatory “romance.”

Spielberg’s 2004 film used a contrived love interest between Viktor (Tom Hanks) and Amelia (a stewardess who passes periodically through Kennedy, played by the entrancing Catherine Zeta-Jones). This 2013 version of the boy-girl angle is even more contrived. Snowden is supplied with an off-screen girlfriend, who presumably remains in Hawaii and never figures in the plot.

The girlfriend’s father—Jonathan Mills, in a brief but effective appearance—offers his observation, however, that Snowden “ always had very strong convictions of right and wrong.” His comment is artfully balanced with the following scene, in which an irate neighbor says, “He’s lucky someone didn’t shoot him.”

In a misguided plot twist, the film introduces a second romance angle which quickly fizzles out, and serves only to get the mini-talented Anna Chapman, a former Russian spy, her moment on screen and in the tabloids. Chapman, host of the weekly Russian TV show Secrets of the World, Twitters “Snowden, will you marry me?” and then poses coyly while flashbulbs pop. They never meet.

Although the new Terminal has drawn widespread media attention, the film ultimately founders on its basic premises, which are so preposterous as to undermine the “willing suspension of disbelief” necessary for a film to touch us emotionally.

We are asked to believe that, unknown to the American people, the US’s security apparatus has constructed over the previous seven years a vast, illegal, all-encompassing electronic eavesdropping system which conducts surveillance of every citizen in the country, as well as of global communications.

We are furthermore asked to believe that, instead of responding to Snowden’s revelations with outrage and huge demonstrations, U.S. citizens remain as passive as stunned beef cattle dangling from a moving rack while it carries them toward their slaughter. The film asks us to believe that half of the people in the country are comfortable with the idea that every snip of their electronic communication is monitored, recorded, and stored by government employees and private contractors.

We are also asked to believe that mainstream media, instead of praising Snowden’s courage, his willingness to sacrifice his career, and his scrupulous care to avoid endangering the security of individuals and the country, actually collaborate with the government in portraying him as a coward and a traitor.

We are asked to believe that Congressional leaders rise to defend the government’s giant criminal conspiracy instead of condemning it. Here Nancy Pelosi needs to be singled out for her outstanding performance. Playing herself in a cameo role, complete with pearls, she defends the secret mass surveillance as entirely legal under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Appearing on a staged version ofMeet the Press, she attacks Snowden and delivers a chilling portrayal of a hard-line party apparatchik endorsing governmental spying on its own citizens.

Finally, we are asked to believe that sovereign nation after sovereign nation abandons any sense of international law or moral responsibility and bows to threats by the U.S., refusing Snowden asylum. In one particularly far-fetched scene, the governments of France, Portugal, Italy, and Spain all collude with the U.S. to force a plane carrying the president of Bolivia (played by Evo Morales) to land in Austria, based on nothing more than a rumor Snowden is aboard. There the plane is stormed and searched by Austrian police—only to find, in a comic denouement, that after all the hoopla, Snowden isn’t on the aircraft.

Snowden’s performance is a revelation. The unknown, in his first feature role, is utterly convincing as a thoughtful thirty-something with a strong sense of patriotism and an even stronger sense of right and wrong. Instead of a thriller with the requisite sexpot thrown in for romance, he manages to turn the film into a love story—a tale of genuine love for his country’s ideals and for freedom. There is talk of an Oscar, and he has already been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Producers and directors are besieging him with additional projects, but those remain on hold so long as the threat of a lifetime prison sentence or execution hangs over his head.

I won’t cheat people who haven’t yet seen the film by revealing its stunning conclusion; be advised that it is Hollywood to the end. The real world could never match this.