Director Oliver Stone returns to the political arena with Snowden, a dramatized telling of nine years in the life of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Does the film give a balanced take on Snowden’s history and actions, or does it fall too heavily on one side of the story?
Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wanted to serve his country following the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01. He joined the military, but two broken legs later, he was honorably discharged. Being a computer guy, he decides to explore a career with the CIA. While with the agency, he proves to be a straight up computer genius and falls under the mentorship of Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). Around that time, Snowden strikes up a relationship with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), a girl he met through online dating. Snowden becomes more and more disillusioned with the CIA when he finds out they don’t always play nice with others. Then he makes the discovery that the United States government has the means to spy on all of its citizens and that the government is making use of those means. He leaves the CIA and joins the NSA, which he finds to be even worse than the CIA. The more Snowden learns about the dirty secrets behind the curtain, the more unnerved he becomes. He begins to concoct a plan to blow the lid off the entire enterprise, but first he has to decide if it’s worth the life he’s built with Lindsay. All of this is framed by several days in a Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden met with documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), and Guardian Intelligence Reporter Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). These meetings formed the basis of Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary, Citizenfour, and occurred on the eve of Snowden releasing hundreds of classified documents detailing the secret courts and spying programs directed at American citizens.
Your enjoyment of Snowden will greatly depend on how you feel about Edward Snowden as a historical figure. If you think he’s a traitor, you’ll probably hate this film, as Oliver Stone is firmly on his subject’s side. If you think he’s a patriot, then there’s really nothing new here for you. Either way, you might learn a bit more about why Snowden did what he did. Even though Stone is totally in the tank for his subject, Snowden does weigh the ramifications of releasing the documents and tries to impress upon The Guardian to only show the documentation of what was happening in an effort to maintain the integrity of the classified material. Stone paints Snowden not as a man out to destroy his country, but a man who loved his country and wanted to warn its people about a very, very wrong practice that their government was employing. The story is good and interesting, but I have to figure that anyone who has seen Citizenfour can probably skip it. What’s most surprising is that under Stone’s direction, the film is a solid, but straight ahead biopic. Stone is known for his conspiracy theories and wild stories, but maybe he figured reality was stranger than fiction and Snowden’s story was wild enough.
The performances here are great with Gordon-Levitt leading the way as Snowden. He changes his voice for this role and while he doesn’t sound exactly like the real Snowden, it’s a close approximation. Woodley is also charming as Mills. She vacillates between love and frustration as she deals with the lies and misinformation Snowden feeds her in order to keep her safe. Ifans is really good as O’Brian. He does a great job as he slowly morphs from father figure to antagonist for Snowden and he’s creepy as hell. There are also some nice supporting turns from Nicolas Cage, Timothy Olyphant, and Keith Stanfield as well as from the trio of actors playing the reporters in Hong Kong.
Overall, Snowden is a solid and engaging film, but nothing to write home about. It’s much like Sully in that the audience knows the pertinent details and those we don’t know aren’t enough to elevate the film into great territory. It is worth seeing though, especially if you haven’t seen Citizenfour. Also, it will make you super-paranoid, so sleep tight.