A film review by Craig J. Koban September 22, 2016

RANK:  #12


2016, R, 134 mins.


Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden  /  Shailene Woodley as Lindsay Mills  /  Scott Eastwood as Trevor  /  Zachary Quinto as Glenn Greenwald  /  Tom Wilkinson as Ewen MacAskill  /  Melissa Leo as Laura Poitras  /  

Directed by Oliver Stone  /  Written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald

In many ways, SNOWDEN feels like a cinematic marriage made in proverbial heaven for its director and subject matter.  

Oliver Stone has made a career of tackling polarizing events and people from the past in works as far ranging as PLATOON, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, JFK, NIXON and W..  The very recent story of Edward Snowden – an former American Intelligence and contract worker for the U.S. government that leaked classified information from the National Security Agency to reporters from The Guardian in 2013 – most definitely pushes a considerable number of hot button debates regarding the very nature of espionage and the secretive and invasive methods that governmental forces utilize to ensure citizen safety.  SNOWDEN feels like the kind of film that Stone has been wanting to make for decades, especially during a relatively middling period of forgettable creative efforts.  This is his most head strong, confident, and fascinating film in twenty years. 

I was oddly reminded of the very recent SULLY while watching SNOWDEN, for reasons that may not immediately seem obvious and apparent.  Here me out:  Both films are about very recent fact-based figures that got the public eye.  Both films engage in a debate about whether or not their subject’s course of action was correct and justified.  Both films are not all encompassing biopics of their subject’s entire lives.  Both films utilize a fractured, disjointed, and non-linear narrative structure to tell their respective stories.  Where SNOWDEN is the clear cut superior of the two, though, is in how thoroughly it explores the many facades of its titular character and for how exemplary it makes use of its mosaic-like scripting in term of exploring the vast complexities of Snowden’s career and ultimate whistleblower turn.  More importantly, Stone – in pure Stone-ian form – demonstrates a clear-cut agenda in informing us of his stance on Snowden’s actions, but he still respects the intelligence of audience members by allowing us to tackle the many conundrums of Snowden and make up our own minds about the righteousness – or lack thereof – of what he did. 



Rather wisely, Stone makes a pointed effort right from the get go to relay that SNOWDEN is a “dramatization” of history, not a painstaking recreation of it (it avoids using the obligatory title cards “based on a true story”).  That, and as mentioned, the film is not a full blown biographical account of the entirety of Snowden’s life, but rather a chronicling of a very specific nine year period (2004-2013), and in the opening stages of the story we meet him (in an Oscar worthy turn from the remarkably versatile Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as a staunchly proud and patriotic American that yearns to make a career of serving in the military.  Unfortunately, some very bad timing and equally bad luck lead to a horrific leg injury during basic training, which sidelines his desires to serve indefinitely.  Picking himself up, Snowden realizes that there are many other distinct opportunities for him to defend his country…so he turns to intelligence work. 

Switching focus to the CIA, Snowden demonstrates very early on his remarkable aptitude for deductive and analytical thinking in pressurized situations with time restraints, which catches the eye of his teacher Corbin O’Brien (a quietly intimidating Rhys Ifans).  Very quickly, Snowden develops a reputation for being a strong willed, resourceful, and honest agent, something that he holds an inordinate amount of pride in.  Unfortunately, the longer he works for the government the more he learns of the frighteningly invasive (and potentially illegal) “Big Brother” methods that the CIA and NSA are employing to spy on millions of citizens all over the world.  He begins to have a crisis of conscience, which not only affects his once noble minded and blind allegiance to his country, but also his relationship with his live-in girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), whom is having great difficulty processing the kind of secretive life that her soulmate is embroiled in. 

As history has demonstrated, Snowden becomes paralyzed with anxiety about his role in the government’s surveillance actions, so he decides to spill everything he knows to documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) while in a hotel room in Hong Kong in 2013.  Stone begins the film at the end, so to speak, by showing bits and pieces of this clandestine rendezvous and then works backward and forward throughout the remainder of the film, and without it feeling convoluted.  Again, Stone’s mission here is not to paint an objective minded overview of Snowden's career, but rather to give us an intimate journey through a decade of his life through his prerogative alone.  There’s a brilliant and pitch perfectly engineered moment very late in the film when Snowden is being interviewed via a satellite feed from his exiled home in Russia…and the camera pans off of Gordon-Levitt and then soon pans back to the real Snowden in his place.  It’s an ingenuously orchestrated reveal that makes this dramatized historical thriller feel more deeply personal, not to mention that it shows the wonders of Gordon-Levitt’s layered and nuanced performance. 

Initially, Gordon-Levitt looks like he’s going for outright mimicry of Snowden’s nasally inflections, but as the film progresses and matures so does his performance.  He does wonders at not only being a physical and verbal dead ringer for Snowden, but he also does a bravura job of making us feel the layers upon layers of paranoia that plagued this man up until the end.  SNOWDEN is a very intricate film from so many vantage points, but there is a stark simplicity of approach in Gordon-Levit’s portrayal of a very galvanizing individual.  He grounds the film emotionally in every scene he occupies and helps us understand the deep-rooted conflict that was bearing down on his soul.  As Stone obviously insists, Gordon-Levitt invites us in to empathize with limitless scope of Snowden’s ethical quandary; he has certainly never been so fully and triumphantly immersed in a role.  His work is complimented nicely by the lived-in chemistry that he and Shailene Woodley have throughout the film.  I appreciated that Stone didn’t devolve Lindsay into a one-note “grieving girlfriend/spouse” role in the film: Woodley portrays her as an intelligent and outspoken libertarian that has her own relatable struggles in the film to make sense out of her boyfriend’s senseless situation. 

Stone drums up tension in the film like a master in the most low key and often inconsequential ways.  Sometimes, SNOWDEN elicits viewer unease in modest scenes of having the three journalists and their interview subject held up in a hotel room in fear of larger forces on the outside world looming in on them.  The film ultimately builds to a sequence that shows Snowden using some quick wits – and a rigged up Rubik’s Cube – to smuggle out evidence of the questionable surveillance programs and government plans on a tiny memory card.  We’ve seen countless moments like this before in innumerable spy movies, but this one has stakes that feel palpably larger and more eerily dangerous.  Snowden was eventually charged with espionage and theft and became a man without a country.  With help, he got out of Hong Kong and fled to Russia, where he was granted one-year asylum.  As of 2015, he was still living in an undisclosed Russian location with Lindsay seeking asylum elsewhere until he can safely return to the states to face a “fair trial.”

More than any other film from Stone’s resume in years – or any other film from this year – SNOWDEN made me think and think hard about its dense thematic material.  Snowden has been labeled many things: a crusader of truth, a heroic whistleblower, a patriotic dissident, and a criminal and traitor.  There are definitely arguments to be made that, yes, Snowden is indeed a guilty criminal for his actions, not to mention that no government in the world would want its trade secrets revealed to every news organization in the world.  Yet, having said that, Snowden clearly was trying to uncloak governmental wrongdoing on a beyond massive scale.  One could argue over his methods in obtaining proof and relaying said proof, but his disclosure to the Guardian showed proof that the U.S. was willfully sifting through the personal lives of billions of people’s emails, texts, blogs, Facebook posts, and so on in an effort to find and stop the next big terrorist target.  And what of the government’s guilt in all of this?  Did their ends truly justify their means?  Did they do what they did to simply combat evil in the world or out was in born out of self-preservation? 

It’s these and many more questions that SNOWDEN matter-of-factly poses that makes it so undeniably gripping and powerful.  All in all, it makes so much damn sense why Stone would find this material so attractive: Not only was Snowden embroiled in one of the most notorious public scandals of recent memory, but it also tapped into all of our inherent fears of living in a post-9/11 world where our privacy and rights are so casually thrown out the window for the perceived cause of the greater good.  Stone has always been a filmmaker that wants to explore and expose historical truth - or a version of it - in his best films, and even when you don’t necessarily agree with his unique and aggressive brand of movie whistle blowing, there’s no denying his matchless swagger and skill at doing just that.  SNOWDEN is not just a topical, relevant, and important film, but it’s also one that shows its director at full command of his powers of persuasion, something that was clearly AWOL during the last several years.  At 70-years-old, Stone’s best work is clearly behind him, but SNOWDEN shows that – when presented with just the right material to sink his teeth into – he’s still got it. 


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