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.

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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.

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