Edward Joseph Snowden is one of the most controversial figures of the 21st century. With a Wikipedia page boasting 559 references, much has been written and said about the one-time wunderkind responsible for bringing the American intelligence community to its knees. Most of the discourse surrounding him divides people into very clear camps--either you think he is a hero, or you think he is a traitor. The logical extension of this is that a film about him should seek to capture this uncomfortable balance and present a nuanced picture.
Oliver Stone's Snowden, the dramatized account of the events, seeks to humanize the man behind the headlines. But of course, because it is Oliver Stone, it can't quite stop there. It has to be a stylized version that hammers home a point of view. Deeply skeptical of American hegemony around the world, it is unsurprising that Stone would be in the 'hero' camp with regards to Snowden. What is surprising, however, is how not much else is able to break through on screen. While entertaining in spots, the film leaves us with a lopsided portrait of a clearly complicated man, and robs the subject matter of the tension it deserved.
Edward Snowden is a young high school dropout with a a technical prowess that makes him a dream candidate for America's cyber-security efforts. After an injury forced him to leave the military, he applies for a job at the CIA. With an aptitude that is off the charts, Snowden rises quickly, gaining access to more and more sensitive information.
As he see the CIA's most secret tools, he becomes disillusioned with how much information is being collected on ordinary Americans, not just on foreign governments and terrorists. Armed with this knowledge, he decides to leak a mountain of files about secret programs to the press--setting off a worldwide firestorm of political embarrassment and triggering a global manhunt to arrest him.
The events of the film jump back and forth between the process of Snowden leaking the information to the press and Snowden gathering the information over the previous years. It also covers his romantic relationship with Lindsay Mills (played by Shailene Woodly). By the end of the film, we are caught up with Snowden's current life, which finds him in Russia as a fugitive from a United States prosecution under the espionage act.
As a piece of entertainment, the film is fairly middle of the road. At 134 minutes, it cannot be said that it moves briskly. It includes a somewhat odd final act that rushes through some of the most interesting material. Namely, when Snowden is huddled up in a hotel room with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (played by Melissa Leo) and Ewan MacAskill (played by Tom Wilkinson) and Glenn Greenwald (played by Zachary Quinto) from The Guardian. It is in these moments that we not only get to see the then-current reality of Snowden's new world, but we also see our own new world. Learning about the full scale of his revelations and the global implications of them is the film's central punch. My personal preference would have been for more of this and slightly less of the 'spy games' material contained in the film's first act.
That said, It has several elements that work well. The casting here is top notch, including Gordon-Levitt's lead performance. He is perfectly textured as the seemingly well-meaning Snowden. Each line comes off even more self-assured than the last as he grows more and more certain that he is doing the right thing. Given the material, Gordon-Levitt does a fine job of creating the deep-seeded confidence required to do what Snowden did. It would require a near certainty in your own moral compass to release this information.
For me, while that certainty is on display here, there is nothing that counterbalances it. The closest we get to a foil is his CIA superiors and a parade of television news clips making arguments in snippets. It's not hard to win an argument when you set up James Clapper's ineffective Congressional testimony as the counterpunch. Stone loses points for not wrestling with a more robust set of arguments, but perhaps the film would have dragged even more if he did.
In different hands, I could imagine a film where Snowden comes out with a few more bumps and bruises, but where we ultimately get a more compelling story. Take, for instance, a movie like The Social Network. Their white, male, boy-genius protagonists make them apt for comparison, but that film does so much more to ask interesting questions in lieu of simply presenting a narrative. By the end, you are left feeling like Mark Zuckerberg is just a guy. Here, you are left feeling like Snowden is, in fact, a symbol. Somehow the flesh and blood are just the haloed paragon of virtue we are offered here. As is, this isn't a bad film, but it certainly could have been more with a more sober eye.
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