Movie Review: Snowden
By Matthew Huntley
September 26, 2016

He didn't answer the 'what is the worst part of working with Oliver Stone' question well.

Oliver Stone's Snowden begins by telling us it's a dramatization of events that took place in 2013, and it's right, because it essentially takes Laura Poitras' 2014 documentary, Citizenfour, which chronicled the same material, and puts it into traditional narrative form. Stone, an outspoken liberal, likely wanted to make Edward Snowden's controversial story more accessible to a mass audience. For this reason, and because the movie actually works as a dramatization, it's able to sidestep being a mere theatrical exercise. At the end of it, we actually care about and get involved in the life of Edward Snowden the character, which is not only the sign of a good movie but, in this case, a good biopic.

However, what prevents Snowden from being a great biopic is that Citizenfour, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary, came out first and it remains, in my opinion, the better film and a more fitting and provocative outlet for telling Snowden's story. Was I at a "disadvantage" for having seen Citizenfour beforehand, since it might have diluted the effect Snowden would have otherwise had on me? Perhaps, but I would still take Poitras' film over Stone's because it's bolder, edgier, and brings rawer information to the table. Stone's film has a broader, more mainstream feel to it, the kind that makes us think the filmmakers don’t completely entrust us to get all the information they present. Still, this isn't to say Stone's film didn't engage me through mood, tension, tone and, above all, complex characters with real emotions. All of these qualities proved effective enough for Snowden to pass the "is it worth seeing?" test, just not with flying colors.

The film opens with Snowden meeting Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) in Hong Kong in 2013, where Snowden has traveled after leaving his job at the National Security Agency. He's on a mission, if you will, to expose that organization's illegal wiretapping practices and believes Poitras and Greenwald can help. Snowden is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who nails the look, speech and body language of the real Edward Snowden rather uncannily. As the story develops, so too does Gordon-Levitt's performance, which grows beyond mere imitation as we get the sense he's really poured his heart and soul into this character, which is all the more fitting since the real Snowden has poured his own heart and soul into speaking out about civil liberties. Whether we watch the real Snowden or Gordon-Levitt playing him, we can't help but think we're getting the real deal.

Through a series of flashbacks, the film recounts why and how Snowden's life has come to this - to the point where he feels he must hide out in Hong Kong, put his phone in a microwave, and cover himself up with a blanket when logging into his computer. Beginning in 2004, after breaking both legs and being administratively discharged from the U.S. Armed Services, Snowden worked his way up through various intelligence agencies, among them the CIA, working as either an analyst or engineer. With each new position he acquired, he learned just how extensive and invasive the government's reach into the lives of everyday citizens has become since 9/11, and how organizations like the NSA collect vast amounts of data through text messages, e-mails, cameras, etc., all without our consent. Growing increasingly paranoid and disheartened, Snowden finally says enough is enough and accepts his obligation is no longer aiding the government in thwarting potential terrorists, but to thwart the government itself and bring its unethical monitoring practices to light.

Depending on your point of view, Snowden's role as a whistleblower either makes him a hero or a traitor, but no matter how you see him, what Snowden does, and indeed what it should do, is present him as a full-fledged, genuine character with relatable emotions, struggles and relationships. These are the qualities that bring the film to life beyond any reservations we may have regarding his behavior. At the end of the day, he is a young, troubled soul whose knowledge and position have put him in a very difficult situation, and we recognize that.

Of course, Snowden could have simply turned the other cheek, gone about his day job, and retired home every night to his loving and loyal girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), but he doesn't, because he's not wired that way. His conscience and intelligence have forced him to wrestle with his own ideals.

On the one hand, he wants to be a patriot and utilize his skills in the name of defense and freedom (his motivation for joining the army in the first place was to fight in Iraq and “free people from oppression”), which is what his CIA recruiter and instructor, Corbin O'Brian (Rhys Ifans), tells him he was hired for. On the other, the more he learns about the government's malfeasance, the more he believes his true purpose is to spread the truth and start a public dialogue with the government and question whether they're going too far in the name of security, or at least going about it in wrong way. He's blunt in expressing his opinion that the government's quantifying of data has become less about protecting us and more about maintaining cyber supremacy and, in turn, supremacy in general.

Because I saw Citizenfour, as well as a recent episode of HBO's Vice titled "State of Surveillance," in which the real Snowden gives a disturbing demonstration of just how simple it is for the government to track us through our phones and computers (did you know they have the ability to turn on our devices?), I wasn't particularly surprised by the information Snowden brought to the table, but for those learning about it for the first time, Stone's film may prove scary and fascinating, which is another reason to see it.

What the film ultimately did for me was invoke a sense of empathy for Snowden and reiterated just how important transparency is when it comes to government and leadership. To me, transparency isn't about exposing secrets but rather sharing knowledge, and the more knowledge we share with and obtain from one another, the more involved and empowered we feel, and shouldn't the government work at making us feel involved and empowered? Whether or not you agree with Snowden or me on this issue is beside the point and its liberal message isn’t what makes Snowden a valuable film. What makes it valuable is that we care about the person it follows, a person who's torn between doing what others expect of him and what he thinks is right, which is a dilemma we can all relate to. This isn't the most original, emotional or tightly constructed of biopics, but it underlines an issue that's becoming more relevant every day. Before it does that, though, it ensures the person telling us about it is someone with whom we can sympathize.