“Snowden” is a gripping biopic and spy thriller based on the world’s most famous whistleblower Edward Snowden. One of the most controversial figures in popular culture and politics, he is maligned as a traitor and praised as a hero to an almost equal degree. In Oliver Stone’s “Snowden”, he is portrayed as the latter with very little ambiguity to the contrary.
“Snowden” begins in Hong Kong with Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meeting journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Lauras Poitras (Melissa Leo) for the first time. They go to his hotel room and hands them as well as Guardian journalist Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) the trove of classified NSA files, which most famously uncovered the agency’s unconstitutional mass surveillance program and made the title character an icon. The three journalists proceed to interview Snowden and his responses serve as a jumping off point to chronicle Snowden from his first entry into the CIA up to his last act as an NSA-contracted employee.
Snowden starts his government career in boot camp preparing for military service. After he suffers a leg injury making him unable to continue his training, he is forced to find a new way to serve his country. With a self-taught, genius expertise of computers, he gets a spot in a CIA training program for cybersecurity even though he lacks a high school degree. The head instructor of the program and a senior CIA operative, Corbin O’Brian gives him the opportunity and helps Snowden land several jobs and missions spanning multiple government agencies and countries over the course of the movie. Meanwhile, Snowden meets his girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley) over a dating site and they bond over shared interests of the internet and argue over the merits of the Iraq War.
Snowden’s jobs in foreign countries pit him as a hyperrealist James Bond with a moral compass. Instead of getting into gunfights and supermodel’s beds, he gets into bank’s databases and has his girlfriend introduce him to marks (I don’t think Snowden speaks to a single female in the movie besides Lindsay.)
As the real Snowden’s antagonist was not anyone but really the system of mass surveillance perpetuated by numerous complex governmental bodies, the fictional “Snowden” personifies ‘the system’ through Corbin, portraying him first as a nurturing fatherly figure who over time reveals he is essentially Big Brother, interested merely in control, stating at one point “Americans don’t want freedom. They want security”. At the same time, Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay serves to symbolize the immorality of secrecy as he must hide nearly every aspect of his work from her, driving them apart.
The film succeeds most when it is taking the issue of mass surveillance head on, presenting dramatizations and arguments in such a way that you might look at your laptop and smartphone with a tinge of paranoia after leaving the movie. The film only fails when portraying the melodrama of Snowden and Lindsay’s relationship, which over time devolves into a series of predictable bickering contests.
Like most Oliver Stone films, the acting is top-class. Most notably, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who clearly studied for the role rigorously, plays Snowden with a meticulous level of detail, imitating his voice and personality to the point of perfection. I believe his performance should net him his first Academy Award nomination. Shailene Woodley as Lindsay is typecast yet irresistibly charming. She essentially plays a more mature and liberal-minded version of her character from “The Spectacular Now”. Zachary Quinto as Glenn Greenwald gives a great supporting performance, also capturing the mannerisms and passions of the real life person. Rhys Ifans, the Lizard from “The Amazing Spiderman”, plays Corbin O’Brien and resulting in a fittingly sociopathic performance giving the most interesting Big Brother-esque inspired scene in movies I’ve ever seen.
Oliver Stone has written a few of the greatest movies in cinema including “Scarface”, “Wall Street”, and “Platoon”. While “Snowden” is not in the same class as those films, it is at least a respite from the loud and obnoxious Summer blockbuster season and a well-made portrayal of an incredibly fascinating man and issue that has captured the international zeitgeist.
All in all, “Snowden” is an exciting and intelligent portrayal of the Edward Snowden story. While one will not get the same amount of insight from the authorized Edward Snowden documentary “Citizenfour”, the biopic makes for one of the best films in the hacker-genre and a worthy addition to Oliver Stone’s filmography.