As a sensationalist romp, Oliver Stone's Snowden almost gets there—even if the end result feels like a Wikipedia summary.
In the hands of a provocateur such as Stone, a movie telling the story of National Security Agency contractor turned traitor/patriot/whistleblower (depending on who you ask) Edward Snowden has the potential to be a masterpiece of paranoia. Instead, the film Stone delivers, Snowden, works mostly as a character study before shifting into full on hagiography in closing minutes.
Movies telling of-the-moment stories almost always come across as self-righteous and stodgy. But, coming on the heels of Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning Citizenfour (whose interviews are dramatized and used as a framing device here), Stone (directing a script he co-wrote with Kieran Fitzgerald) focuses more on the character of Snowden and how he went from a conservative computer wunderkind with good intentions, to a jaded rogue with good intentions.
It’s an undeniably fascinating and important story, one made even timelier but a fresh cycle of Snowden content this month—most surprisingly the revelation that the Washington Post opposed a presidential pardon for the guy; somewhat ironic since Snowden helped the paper win a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for public service reporting.
The movie kicks off with Snowden’s four-day interview session with Poitras and Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, wherein Snowden reveals the moments during his tenure with the CIA that ultimately led him down his path. We move through those key events with more deftness than the average biopic, jumping from time to time and allowing Gordon-Levitt to play off numerous big actors (Nic Cage, Timothy Olyphant, Rhys Ifans, among others).
Gordon-Levitt plays Snowden as a man whose belief in the government’s dedication to the public borders on the naive. Seeing his beliefs broken down and molded into something more hostile and questioning is the strongest aspect of the film.
The performance picks up the slack when the writing comes up short. There’s an early scene where fresh-to-the CIA Snowden meets Hank Forrester (Cage), who says to Snowden, “You would think intelligence is important in the intelligence industry.” As a snide remark it barely registers, but it’s a line that grows more potent as the movie goes on.
The more Snowden learns, the clearer it becomes that the people acquiring the intelligence are running amok. There’s a great moment during Snowden’s stint in Hawaii where a team of analysts accidentally zap an entire country’s internet. Snowden views himself as the check needed to balance out the wanton behavior of the government.
Gordon-Levitt milks the arc for all the pathos he can and clearly lays out why Snowden eventually does what he does. Whether you personally agree with the leaking of classified documents, by the end of the movie you at least understand Snowden’s headspace, and that’s a credit to the performance.
But Snowden isn’t totally alone on his journey. Shailene Woodley plays Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills, and she elevates a role that is uneven in its conception. Mills is presented as a counterpoint to Snowden, challenging him throughout the movie (Mills later takes flirty credit for moving Snowden from his staunch conservative views). Their arguments usually come down to Snowden believing people’s rights are being violated while Mills shrugs off the significance of government-sanctioned spying. These moments come across as talking down to the audience.
Take for example the jargon-heavy discussions between Snowden and his mentor Corbin O’Brian (Ifans) and compare it to the sex scene where Snowden stares into his laptop’s spying eye. Both scenes make similar points, and you can view them as complements, but it's also sloppy hand-holding.
Mills is used in a similar fashion later when Snowden confronts her about nude photos she keeps on her laptop. Again, she dismisses the implications of the government being able to see those photos and the movie may as well be screaming at the audience, “Do you get it yet?!” It actually made me think of John Oliver’s 2015 interview with Snowden that boiled down to Oliver asking of the government, “Can they see my dick?”
Once the third act hits the focus is more on the consequences of Snowden’s actions, and that’s where the (dramatized) reality of the movie blends with our reality. Snowden doesn’t want to return to the U.S. until he believes he will receive a fair trial, which the movie makes abundantly clear he won’t receive (the movie has a clip of President Obama dismissing Snowden as just a “hacker” and other politicians being just as disdainful).
Meanwhile the current presidential nominees also believe he should be in jail. (Donald Trump says Snowden should be tried for treason, which is punishable by death.) It’s a thorny topic that the movie addresses with gardening gloves, almost a throwaway gesture. The movie ends with the same question it starts with: Should Snowden be lauded or locked up? The movie clearly think that he's a hero.
The movie also blurs the line between reality and film when the real Snowden shows for an extended cameo, complete with swelling music and stoic shots. The man literally receives a standing ovation from a crowd thousands of miles away. Will it change your mind? Unlikely. But you'll leave with an appreciation for what Snowden was willing to give up for what he perceived as the greater good.