Review: “Snowden”

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Considering that its subject is such a controversial figure, Oliver Stone’s “Snowden”—a drama based on the life of Edward Snowden, an NSA employee who leaked thousands of classified government documents to the public in 2013—is decidedly uncontroversial.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t a solid, well-made, and even at times thrilling, movie; but it could have been so much more.

“Snowden” tracks the life of technologically brilliant young man (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) beginning in 2004, when he enlisted in the U.S. Army, only to be discharged before finishing training after breaking both legs in an accident.  A couple years later, he joins the CIA, and begins training under Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans).  But after an incident on a job in Geneva makes Snowden realize how corrupt the people he is working for are, so he leaves the CIA, only to join up with the NSA later on as a contractee for Dell, monitoring computer system upgrades.  It’s here that he begins to realize that the NSA is actively spying on everyday citizens using multiple programs, so he begins collecting the documents he needs to leak the information to the press.

But why exactly does Snowden suddenly decide to do this, knowing that he is risking more than just his job by doing so?  That question is at the heart of why “Snowden” doesn’t entirely work.  Obviously, Snowden leaks the information because he believes spying on people, especially in the way the NSA was, is wrong.  But outside of a couple nicely handled scenes by Gordon-Levitt showcasing Snowden’s paranoia, the psychology of the man is never delved into.  In fact, “Snowden” overall is a very by-the-books biopic, a bit of an anomaly for a director like Stone, who usually tackles material in a more challenging manner.  The film progresses from scene to scene and this happens and that happens, but it never really asks: why?

And then there’s the issue with Stone taking a decidedly pro-Snowden stance with this film.  Actually, that isn’t so much the problem, as it is that Stone completely neglected examining a whole side of the issue that could have made the film more interesting.  There are just as many people out there who would brand Snowden a traitor rather than a hero; some more questioning as to the morality behind Snowden’s actions would have portrayed the controversial figure as more, well, controversial.

The story is framed by Snowden sitting in a hotel room in Hong Kong in 2013, telling his story to documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), who he has chosen to leak the documents to the press.  These scenes are actually some of the most thrilling in the film, as the trio—later joined by Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson)—frantically try to figure out the best time and manner in which to publish the information, without Snowden being caught in the meantime.  It doesn’t help, however, that this story has been told already in a much more effective way: and that would be the documentary Poitras is portrayed as making in this film, “Citizenfour,” which won the 2015 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.  Stone’s narrative could have been one of the best films of the year, and it would still be hard to beat real life.

snowden
Shailene Woodley as Lindsay Mills with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Edward Snowden

“Snowden” is still immensely entertaining, however, and if nothing else Stone is great at building tension in even the simplest scenes.  The cast is excellent across the board, with Gordon-Levitt turning in an impressive portrayal of Snowden, nailing everything from his mannerisms to his distinctive voice.  Shailene Woodley plays his long-term (and long-suffering) girlfriend Lindsay Mills, and the pair have great chemistry.  Ifans is equal parts charming and frightening as Snowden’s mentor-turned enemy, while Ben Schnetzer is very good as Gabriel Sol, Snowden’s colleague who first shows him the spy programs the government uses.  And it’s nice to see Nicolas Cage in a small but effective role as Hank Forrester, a CIA curator of sorts, working with preserving old technology, and who contrasts O’Brien as a mentor for Snowden.

The film ends on a strange note, with the real Edward Snowden making an appearance; not in any sort of archival footage or interview playing over the end credits, but with him finishing a dramatic speech begun by Gordon-Levitt’s Snowden.  It’s a moment that not only takes away from the actor’s final, pivotal scene, but also serves as a reminder that what we just saw isn’t real, and that there are better, more informative versions of the story out there.

Runtime: 134 minutes. Rated R.

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