Released last Friday, Snowden, Oliver Stone’s thrilling biopic of the controversial man who leaked thousands of classified government documents to global journalists, is a well-made film with a globally poignant message that is well worth the price of admission.
Prior to Snowden, director Oliver Stone became known for writing Brian de Palma’s cult crime drama Scarface in 1983. This also marked the beginning of his illustrious working relationship with actor Al Pacino. Following his stint as a writer, Stone became more well-known for his hard-hitting trilogy of films covering the Vietnam War.
This trilogy includes Best Picture winner Platoon (1986), as well as Tom Cruise-led Born on the Fourth of July (1989). He also helped launch the career of Charlie Sheen even further with 1987’s Wall Street (known for the iconic Michael Douglas line, “Greed is good.”). More recently Stone directed the poorly received George W. Bush biopic, W., as well as a sequel to the aforementioned Sheen vehicle, Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (starring Shia LaBeouf as an upstart trader).
In a successful effort to humanize the titular Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who has been called both a traitor and a hero, the events of the film are framed as Snowden’s memories, which he relates to journalists Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) from a hotel in Hong Kong. His early experiences in the army and subsequent years rising through the ranks of the government demonstrate his patriotism, in turn making his internal conflict more palpable as he becomes disenchanted with the CIA and NSA’s unethical practices. Alongside his turbulent career, he struggles to maintain his relationship with his longtime girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), an enigmatic photographer with whom he clashes because of their lifestyle differences.
Writers Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald create a well-paced, engaging story that balances aspects of Snowden’s personal and professional lives well over the nine-year scope of the film. Amidst the slower sequences bogged down with technical computer jargon, Woodley’s portrayal of Lindsay provides a breath of fresh air for the audience. As the film’s most memorable character, her relationship with Snowden could have been afforded more time by the writers to shift focus away from the less important technical aspects of Snowden’s job and show more of his human side.
Woodley’s character takes on a more serious role in the film after Snowden develops epilepsy, an important part of his story which would have been very easy for the director to ignore (thank you Stone for treating Snowden’s disorder with sensitivity). The film’s editing, which is otherwise unremarkable, makes these moments more impactful. The effect of missing frames and dissonant sound as Lindsay calls his name help the audience to better understand what is personally at risk for Snowden.
The scene in which Snowden describes the scope of the NSA’s global surveillance network also stands out because of its visual power. Computer-generated imagery accompanying his explanation of “hopping” within the NSA’s database succeeds in communicating the massive amount of personal information he could accumulate from just a fraction of the data amassed by the organization. As the only heavy use of CGI in the film, the scene stands out not for feeling awkward and out of place but for concisely manifesting what Snowden is fighting against.
It is clear from scenes like this that Stone is staunchly in support of Snowden, and this is what differentiates the film from other media coverage, which typically tries to demonize him and those connected to him. Though his story is undeniably politically charged and partly concerns Lindsay’s liberal influence on Snowden’s initially conservative mindset (particularly during the 2008 election), the film remains firmly non partisan throughout.
President Bush is criticized for allowing the implementation of unethical practices by the NSA, but President Obama is similarly censured for not enacting his campaign promise for surveillance reform. That is not to mention the subtle digs taken from real interviews at both presidential hopefuls Donald Trump, who implies that Snowden should be executed, and Hillary Clinton, who condemns him as a thief and lawbreaker.
The film ends in a moving scene, which features Edward Snowden speaking through video to a hall of students. His message is one of national and global unity — we should all come together to hold our government accountable for their actions so that “whistleblowers” like him will become less radical. He makes it clear that he never intended to hurt the United States government and was simply upholding the founding principles of the country by allowing the people to decide whether their government is acting justly.
Snowden is by no means a masterpiece, but is a solid film with an important message that is often overlooked by media efforts to vilify Snowden. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is well suited to the titular role, Shailene Woodley shines opposite him as Lindsay and Oliver Stone crafts an engaging story to illuminate Snowden’s struggle.
However, the real triumph of this film is not Gordon-Levitt’s nor Stone’s, but Edward Snowden’s. His ideas of holding governments accountable for their practices and the power of ordinary citizens to enact change are now globally pervasive, and his voice has more reach now than ever before.
Snowden is currently playing at the The Charles Theatre, the Cinemark Towson and the AMC Loews at White Marsh.