Snowden is a solid, yet unremarkable, portrayal of an intriguing incident that asks the audience to contemplate serious questions.
Snowden is based on the true story of Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an employee of the CIA and NSA who in 2013 leaked classified information about the organizations’ morally ambiguous intelligence tactics to the press. In 2004, Snowden was hoping to serve in the military’s Special Forces, but a medical condition deems him unfit for action. Looking to help his country in another manner, Snowden begins working for the CIA and quickly rises through the ranks thanks to his computer skills and brain power.
One day, Snowden makes the sobering realization that the United States government’s anti-terrorism practices are quite extensive, in that the NSA is spying on everybody. They’re not just targeting suspects with reasonable cause, they can access anyone’s private information in the name of keeping America safe. Feeling that this is the wrong way of doing things, Snowden decides to risk everything and becomes one of the most infamous whistleblowers in history, organizing a clandestine meeting with professional journalists in order to tell his story.
As its opening title card indicates, Snowden is a dramatized version of the fateful events that made headlines a few years ago, as shown through the lens of Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone. The film had a tough road on its way to the big screen (there was trouble securing a distributor and numerous release date shifts), but the hope was that a controversial filmmaker like Stone would be able to take a controversial narrative and turn it into a compelling drama. Unfortunately, he’s only partially successful in that regard. Snowden is a solid, yet unremarkable, portrayal of an intriguing incident that asks the audience to contemplate serious questions.
The screenplay by Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald is structured so that Snowden’s interactions with journalists Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) are used as a framing device to jump to various points in Snowden’s past. This is an interesting approach, but it’s somewhat flawed since it prevents the film’s story from having a real flow; the constant cutting between time periods creates a choppy feel. Many in attendance will know what happened ahead of time, but Snowden doesn’t build up to its subject’s ultimate decision, sapping some of its impact. Additionally, the movie struggles from some pacing issues, going through the motions along its 2 hour, 15 minute runtime. Things pick up towards the end, but most of what’s presented is fairly standard.
Those familiar with the work of Stone know that he’s a director who likes to approach a project from a specific viewpoint, and that’s the case with Snowden. Though the dialogue does a decent job of presenting both sides of the argument (which should lead to a healthy debate after viewing), it clearly leans towards the argument that Snowden was a national hero. This contrasts with the impartial nature of the Academy Award winning documentary Citizenfour, and will make it difficult for all moviegoers to buy into its message. The themes and conversations are fascinating, but the script could have benefitted from painting the story in more shades of grey. It tells, but doesn’t show, the pros of national surveillance, making Snowden’s choice in the film less difficult than it probably was in real life.
As expected, Gordon-Levitt gives a typically excellent performance as Snowden. He embodies the character, bearing a close physical resemblance to the subject matter and staying committed to the voice (which one gets used to after a few minutes) throughout the entire film. The actor uses his likability and screen presence to show Snowden as a conflicted individual whose dreams of fighting for and staying loyal to the U.S. directly oppose his personal principles. Gordon-Levitt’s Snowden is a sympathetic protagonist, as the pressures and nature of his job weigh heavily on him over time. He’s a strong fit for the role, and Gordon-Levitt carries the film on his shoulders. He’s arguably its strongest asset and really makes Snowden work.
In terms of the supporting cast, the standout there is clearly Shailene Woodley as Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills. She has one of the better turns of her career here, giving Snowden an emotional element that grounds it on a human level. She provides the perspective of the “regular” person thrown into an extraordinary situation, trying to make the best of an unstable life. Woodley has good chemistry with Gordon-Levitt, and the two make for a nice couple whose relationship goes through numerous twists and turns along the way. Other characters aren’t as fleshed out as Lindsay and Snowden, but the likes of Nicolas Cage (far more subdued than usual), Rhys Ifans, Scott Eastwood, Leo, Quinto, and Wilkinson are all solid in their parts, representing the various ideologies of this particular world.
What ultimately prevents Snowden from being as great as it could have been is that despite its interesting subject matter, there quite frankly isn’t enough there to fill out a feature length narrative film (similar to Clint Eastwood’s Sully). As stated above, viewers will feel its length at times as it crawls along to its inevitable endpoint. Stone’s version also has to be in the shadow of Citizenfour, which for many is the definitive portrait of what happened. In the end, Snowden is a well-made, but rather standard, biopic that makes for an accessible entryway into the Snowden story for the unfamiliar. Stone fans and those interested by the marketing should like it, and it may encourage some to read up on the true story further.
Snowden is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 134 minutes and is rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity.
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