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Image credit: Illustration by D. Thomas Magee

Oliver Stone's unhealthy treatment of hacking in Hollywood

Snowden, Putin and Hollywood's hero-worship miasma.
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Illustration by D. Thomas Magee

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What's so compelling about Oliver Stone's recent four-part interview series with Vladimir Putin is probably not what the multi-Oscar-winning director intended. It's the same thing that makes his Edward Snowden biopic its own sort of cipher after the fact.

Both have inadvertently — and strangely, by their own design — upset the already shaky foundations of toxic hero worship in the era of hackers, hacktivism and cyber-espionage.

Stone's four-part documentary The Putin Interviews premiered over the past week on Showtime. Prior to its airing, the tone was set by a tense appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert in which Stone repeatedly refused to say anything bad about Putin.

When Stone went into a diatribe about how Putin refuses to bad-mouth anyone despite his having been "insulted and abused," Colbert's audience was outright laughing at the director. Colbert acidly joked as to whether Putin had Oliver Stone's dog in a cage somewhere.

That fiasco took a backseat to this week's development. In the documentary series, Putin shows Stone a phone video of the Russian Air Force kicking major ass against militants in Syria. The internet, being more into fact-checking than a Hollywood director, quickly debunked the video as 2009 footage of a US strike on the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The Kremlin maintains that the video is from the Russian defense ministry. When asked about the veracity of the footage at a press conference, Stone dismissed and devalued the question, characterizing the issue as "blogging bullshit."

A similar fallout happened with Stone's film Snowden. Setting aside all the ham-fisted dialogue and painfully dramatic shorthand for both narrative structure and character development, the film also had some not-insignificant fact-checking issues. For instance, the audience is shown that Snowden is the stereotypical hacker wunderkind with several examples that turned out not to tell the real story. We found out later that he was a sysadmin, not a genius developer, and one who only passed the NSA's famously brutal hacker test because he got his hands on a copy of the answers.

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None of this is to dismiss the power and epic explorations of films like Stone's Platoon, Natural Born Killers or Born on the Fourth of July. Nor is it to undermine the conversation started by Snowden's stolen files. Though I think it's time to argue that the kind of blind hero worship we're seeing in Stone's recent work typifies how conversations about hacking, surveillance, and human rights are being done a damaging disservice.

Both works are beyond sympathetic to their subjects; they pose as documentary, but instead are interpretations of reality. The main character in each is being portrayed faultlessly. Snowden is a hero who had no choice but to do the moral thing; Stone has been up front that his goal with the interview series it to exonerate Putin from what the director sees as misplaced anger about Trump. (Adamantly refusing to believe anything about Russian cyber-espionage and the election, Stone in January labeled it all hysteria, writing, "I never thought I'd find myself praying for the level-headedness of a Donald Trump.")

Until the end of May, Putin's soundbite on Russian election hacking and interference was that it was all BS -- until he made public statements suggesting a maybe-they-did scenario in which he told press that perhaps "patriotic" Russian hackers had done the dirty in supporting Trump with hacks and various manipulations last year.

For anyone who gives a shit, which ostensibly a documentary director does, this means that there's no ground to take Putin at his word on the topic. But you wouldn't know that by watching Stone's documentary.

...The end result isn't charming or heroic, or even very accurate. It's not even a good story.

The thing about belief in Hollywood and blurred lines in pseudo-docu films is that it has a tendency to leave people thinking that what they're watching is vetted, fact-checked and a matter of record. That when Putin tells a very sympathetic Stone the same lines he's been feeding access journalists like Megyn Kelley, there must be credibility established somewhere. That the Russian president cracking sexist and homophobic jokes is somehow not the same one whose country is right now rounding up gay people to torture and kill in concentration camps.

Or in Snowden's flattering depiction, that state surveillance is little more than something that threatens to reveal our embarrassing sexual indiscretions -- as if there weren't nearly two decades in place of people trying to call attention to domestic state surveillance abuses. Or maybe showing why the minimizing of "surveillance harms," by those who stand to benefit from its power, from law enforcement to corporations, leads to a very real set of harms that become virtual border walls and involuntary facial recognition registries.

By no one questioning what a Hollywood director wanted to believe about Snowden or the context around his actual story, the end result isn't charming or heroic or even very accurate. It's not even a good story.

To those of us in the know of infosec and hacking, who have quietly watched all this from the inside, there's a far more interesting story to be told about Snowden. And it echoes Stone's own Achilles' heel -- would anyone dare to criticize a hero like Snowden whose own problematic hero worship could explore the very questions Stone only pretends to ask of his subjects?

Hacking culture -- especially its activist arms -- is equally to blame for films like Snowden. Maybe Stone's gullible and believes all the hype, or maybe he was just aping the more popular cyber-activist sycophants. Perhaps Oliver Stone simply channeled the black-and-white thinking of "all US government bad" and the poisonous hero worship that's rampant in the limelight-chasing, class-conscious circles of pop-culture infosec. Sound familiar? The same thread seems to run through Putin's talking points, too. There's no conspiracy, but for someone like Stone, it all lines up.

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And as we've seen with almost everything coming out of Hollywood about hacking, hacktivism and infosec in the past five years, it lacks the ability to criticize its subjects. Which is something the topic -- and the people headlining on the infosec/hacktivism stages -- need more than ever. Trust me: Uncritical hero worship is the very last thing anyone needs in this realm right now. Same goes for world leaders.

In the hacked Sony emails, George Clooney wisely remarked on learning of Oliver Stone winning the race to tell Snowden's story that it would be a "hatchet job" but it would be the one everyone remembers.

The inadvertent cipher of Stone's folly -- or gullibility -- becomes an undressing of how history is permanently disfigured.

Sadly, it's not an unusual narrative for Stone anymore, who has more recently tended to like conspiracy theories spun from megalomaniacal oracles over his prior affection, which was telling challenging stories about morally conflicting antiheroes.

Take, for example, the Stone film that forced pop culture into a sharp left turn in the early 1990s: Natural Born Killers. That film amplified our collective compulsion to be attracted to serial killers through charismatic psychopaths acid-tripping hard on their own fame. It showed that Stone's films can grab us by the ID, leave marks and leave us asking Sir politely for more.

Except now, chasing his champions in cyber-espionage on the world stage likely won't go down in history as the letters-of-record Stone seems to be gunning for.

Instead, it may go down in history as expensively produced propaganda.

Images: Photo by Gisela Schober/Getty Images (Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt); Photo by Michael Campanella/Getty Images (Oliver Stone)

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