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Can Oliver Stone's 'Snowden' Save the Real-Life Whistleblower?

The new film arrives amid a renewed push from the real-life Snowden to get a pardon from President Barack Obama.
Image: NSA former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden
NSA former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden is seen via live video link from Russia on a computer screen during a parliamentary hearing on the subject of "Improving the protection of whistleblowers", on June 24, 2015, at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. Snowden, who has been granted asylum in Russia, is being sought by Washington which has branded him a hacker and a traitor who endangered lives by revealing the extent of the NSA spying program. AFP PHOTO / FREDERICK FLORINFREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty ImagesFREDERICK FLORIN / AFP - Getty Images

This weekend, director Oliver Stone's long-awaited biopic of controversial NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden is set to debut, and by nearly all accounts it will be a flattering portrait.

The director, who in the past has been criticized for making movies with an unabashedly leftist bent, has been unequivocal about his admiration for Snowden, who is currently living in Russia to avoid prosecution for leaking state secrets, calling him a "hero" as far back as 2013.

Stone's new film arrives amid a renewed push from the real-life Snowden to get a pardon from President Barack Obama. Although the president has been infamously stingy with his pardon powers since he's been in the White House, Snowden has argued that Obama has a "moral" imperative to absolve him of any wrongdoing.

“I think when people look at the calculations of benefit, it is clear that in the wake of 2013 the laws of our nation changed," Snowden told The Guardian on Tuesday via a video link from Moscow. "The [U.S.] Congress, the courts and the president all changed their policies as a result of these disclosures. At the same time there has never been any public evidence that any individual came to harm as a result.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International have also all joined forces behind a new effort to persuade Obama to pardon Snowden.

The official position of the Obama White House has long been that Snowden should return home to the U.S. and "be judged by a jury of his peers," although former Attorney General Eric Holder conceded last year that he helped spur "a necessary debate" over surveillance in this country, albeit through "inappropriate and illegal" means.

Related: Edward Snowden's Motive Revealed: He Can 'Sleep at Night'

Holder also said that the "possibility" existed of a plea deal being worked out between Snowden and the U.S. government, but his attorneys have suggested that their client is not willing to lose “his civil rights as a result of his act of conscience.”

According to Dr. Jeffrey Crouch, an assistant politics professor at American University and the author of "The Presidential Pardon Power," it would be "fairly shocking" if Obama were to pardon Snowden.

"The White House has consistently signaled that Snowden’s situation is not one that the president would look upon with sympathy, and the fact that Snowden has been hiding in Russia for three years certainly doesn’t help his case," he told NBC News. "Even if Snowden were to come back and face prosecution, I doubt that his chances for clemency would be much improved. The president has gone out of his way to avoid granting clemency to high-profile offenders such as Snowden."

Still, Snowden may be better off taking his chances with Obama than a potential President Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

"He broke the laws of the United States," Clinton has claimed. "He could have been a whistle-blower. He could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistle-blower. He could have raised all the issues that he has raised. And I think there would have been a positive response to that."

Meanwhile, Trump has implied in the past that Snowden should be executed for treason. But he also suggested on Twitter — amid one of his rants on Obama's personal records — that if Snowden were to leak them, "I might become a major fan."

But Crouch argues that presidents have become too reticent in recent years to take the risk of any high-profile pardons.

"There is an unfortunate pattern established by our last three presidents of granting clemency for self-interested reasons after they are free from electoral consequences," Crouch said, citing the polarizing pardons of ran-Contra defendants, financier Marc Rich and former Dick Cheney adviser “Scooter” Libby as examples.

Oliver Stone's movie could become a wild card in the debate. Although early reviews are mixed, the film is being positioned as an awards season contender. And as "Sully" proved recently, there is an appetite among adult audiences for recreations of recent history ("Deepwater Horizon," a film about the 2010 BP oil spill, is also set to hit theaters).

The director's hit 1991 film "JFK" — which was criticized for inaccuracies — clearly had an impact on public perceptions of the assassination of former President John F. Kennedy, and forced a political discussion as well about the controversial findings of the Warren Commission back in 1963.

Stone, who has become an outspoken and fierce critic of Obama, has said that while he didn't make the film for a "political purpose" he "hopes" it will persuade the president to grant Snowden clemency.

"Mr. Obama could pardon him, and we hope so," the two-time Oscar-winning director said at a Toronto International Film Festival press conference. "We hope Mr. Obama has a stroke of lightning, and he sees the way."

However, Susan Hennessey, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former attorney in the Office of General Counsel of the National Security Agency, believes that Obama has repeatedly demonstrated that won't be swayed by the notion of pardons being the result of a "popularity contest."

Hennessey, who worked at the NSA in the wake of Snowden's disclosures from 2013 to 2015, believes that the 33-year-old fugitive not only doesn't deserve to be pardoned, but he also doesn't warrant as much attention as he receives.

Related: 'Naive and Gravely Mistaken': Analysts Rebut Snowden Claims

"My own sense, and the sense of most of my former colleagues, is that he is just not all that important," she said. "The flashes of irritation are not so much the mythology of who he was or why he did what he did but his insistence on participating in a conversation about which he has no expertise."

Hennessey's interest is not whether Snowden is remembered historically as a traitor or what his motivations were, but rather what he leaked and what it actually means.

"I care about the intelligence community being able to do important work," she said. "The president would have to consider what message [a pardon] would send to the men and women of the armed services and the intelligence community, people who risk their lives for this work. These are things that people take quite seriously."

Unfortunately, Hollywood has historically turned a blind eye to the detail-oriented nuance and dogged professionalism that characterizes many government institutions.

"The reality of intelligence work is decidedly unsexy, it's long hours in poorly lit conference rooms," she said.

Nevertheless, Hennessey believes that some fictionalized portraits of our country's government can have a positive impact, in terms of generating valuable debates about what is done in our name and what the consequences of those actions can be.

"This movie is not the first, last or definitive statement on what occurred," she said. "This story is going to be told in many different ways, probably for many years. Additional facts will emerge ... and eventually I’m hopeful we'll be able to put together a fuller understanding of what happened."