“Snowden” is a well-made film that covers Edward Snowden’s adult life and his eventual decision to leak information about the NSA’s surveillance programs to the World. The film is sympathetic to Snowden and argues that he did the right thing. If you already know the details of Snowden, the leaks, the NSA and intelligence community’s surveillance programs, the FISA courts, and all of the other issues related to this, the film will not give you any new information. However, if you only have a shallow understanding of what went down, this film does a very good job of explaining insanely technical stuff to the layman in a dumbed-down but not condescending manner. This is a fictional biopic, so there are liberties taken, exaggerations made, characters made up of composite or entirely out of whole cloth, and all of the other caveats that one should be aware of when watching a film like this, and certainly a film by Oliver Stone, a good director with whom I am usually in political agreement with but whom I also know has a penchant for conspiracy theories and playing hard and loose with facts for dramatic effect. If you go into the film knowing all of that, and being okay with that, you will find an enjoyable film.
Edward Snowden is played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, who gives a very good performance in the way he attempts to mimic the look, voice, and mannerisms of Snowden. His voice is perhaps too deep, and there’s only so much glasses and some hair dye can do to make one person look like another, but the overall effect of his performance is to have him blend into the character and make it his own in a believable manner. The film’s version of Snowden is of a by-the-numbers young Conservative who tried to sign up for the military after 9/11, failed due to a medical issue, and went into intelligence to continue an attempt to serve his country. This is all factually true, but the film does paint Snowden as more of an orthodox Republican than he is. In truth, Snowden is an Ayn Rand-loving, Anarcho-Capitalist Libertarian. I think the purpose of the film molding Snowden from who he is in a real life to a more traditional Conservative who then has a change of heart about patriotism is to make him more likeable to the audience of this film, who given Stone’s politics and fanbase, are more likely to look like me (a Marxist that despises Libertarianism) than like Snowden. The character arc taking someone from patriotic conservative to government-questioning civil rights advocate is both more sympathetic to a person like me and makes for better drama than an anti-government Libertarian turning against the government he already viewed skeptically. Also, watching an Ayn Rand fanboy for two and half hours would be as insufferable as reading “Atlas Shrugged”. The result may make more Leftists personally like Snowden than they would actually like the real person, but it works narratively.
The Snowden of the film really doesn’t exist to be Snowden anyway. He’s a stand-in for the audience. Like Snowden in the film, most Americans were so scared after 9/11 that they blindly fell into patriotic nationalism and accepted whatever the government (particularly the Bush administration) said would keep us safe, which included the Patriot Act. Later, as we learned more and more what was going on, the flagrant violations of the Constitution and basic civil rights, and chronological distance from 9/11 increased, we grew less at ease with what was happening. The film’s Snowden joins the military in ra-ra-go-America fashion, then joins the CIA with the same. Then he sees what the government can do, like read people’s private Facebook messages and tap into webcams without permission. He sees what field agents do, like frame people for crimes they didn’t commit in order to use that as leverage to get information. He finds out that the secret court that is supposed to be the check between the intelligence communities being able to do anything it wants is really just a big rubber stamp.
Snowden has a liberal girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), who perhaps pushes Snowden away from some, but not all, of his Conservative leanings and acts a moral compass at times. In all honesty, the film doesn’t do all that much with her character besides use her to create extra tension on the Snowden character and give him personal stakes to add to the ideological ones the film spends more time on. It’s kind of a wasted opportunity, but it allows Woodley to play a more adult role than she usually gets, and it helps humanize Snowden more. Through the course of the film, Snowden’s moral dilemmas and his ego at being very good at what he does form an internal conflict leading him to jump from gig to gig, some of them very comfortable and high paying. What the film doesn’t really make clear is why Snowden chose the time he did to leak if he had had knowledge of what the government was doing for years, and moral compunctions with it all that time. The film puts in a narrative device that he finally found out the government was spying on Lindsay, but I’m not sure if that is real or just the convenient narrative device it feels like.
It’s almost impossible to review this film without disclosing my opinion on the matter, so let me get that out of the way: the United States was wrong to have the programs it did. I think Snowden was justified in leaking them, so it was perhaps a bit of a cop out to hand the information to journalists and have THEM vet it for information that shouldn’t be leaked versus actually taking that responsibility himself. I think Snowden’s leaking was as much to do with a moral imperative as it was with delusions of grandeur and a martyr complex common with Ayn Rand fanboys who all liken themselves to being the real life John Galt. Ultimately, if his actions were justified and important his motives don’t really matter, but something has irked me about the guy on a personal level, and I think I’m just sensing the Libertarian in him. Also, it should be said that we all suspected the government was doing what Snowden proved they were doing, so these revelations didn’t come out of nowhere. He simply provided evidence to what we already knew. That evidence has lead to concrete and good changes in how we gather intelligence, but I think it’s easy to overstate the importance of what he did as well.
All of that being said, “Snowden” is a very good film by making Snowden into a character more likeable and identifiable to this film’s audience and using him as a vehicle for the audience to go through the feelings it had about all of these topics to, the filmmakers hope, arrive at the same conclusions and moral decisions that its fictional Snowden does. The film does a good job explaining complex issues simply, and it moves at a nice pace, like a very talk-heavy spy movie with intrigue around every corner. For a movie about serious issues, it never feels weighed down with pretentiousness and is very fun to watch.
The film does have a frame story surrounding the Hong Kong hotel Snowden holed up in while working out the leaks with the reporters (we get Zachary Quinto as Glenn Greenwald, Tom Wilkinson as Ewen MacAskill, and Melissa Leo as Laura Poitras, who in real life made the Oscar-winning documentary “Citizenfour” made up largely of footage shot during the time period portrayed in the film) which works fairly well, though the film later rushes through all of the drama involving Snowden flying from Hong Kong to Russia, being stuck in the airport, and then being given asylum in Russia. I think Stone probably found that to be less interesting than the actual issues, but cinematically it might have been fun to portray that (I also wonder how a Wikileaks lawyer had gotten involved during one leg of the trip).
The film accomplishes what it is trying to do. It entertains, it explains simply, it gets you to like and empathize with the protagonist (Stone is particularly good at this, whether it’s Nixon in “Nixon”, Bush in “W.”, or serial killers in “Natural Born Killers”), and it establishes its point of view for the audience to accept (it hopes) or reject. It’s certainly not up there with great Stone films like “Platoon”, but it is a return to form for a director who has not done his best work in many years. The acting is top notch for the material, the pacing is spot on, and this remains and interesting and eminently watchable film throughout. This is probably the best fiction film about Snowden we could have reasonable expected to see. B+