by Jacqueline BorwickEdward Snowden. Just uttering that name can turn heads in a room. Is he a patriot, conspirator or something in between? Here’s a brief refresher course: In 2013, Snowden, then an employee of the National Security Agency, leaked classified documents to journalists. These documents revealed the extent to which the U.S. government was illegally spying on American citizens without their consent. Oliver Stone’s latest project, Snowden suggests there’s more to this story, and attempting to classify it strictly as a case of treason or heroism may be oversimplifying the issue.
In a politically charged scene toward the beginning of the film, Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), are on their first date, strolling in front of the White House when they encounter a political demonstration. The protest is directed at then-President George W. Bush and criticizes the decision to invade Iraq following 9/11. This event offers a perfect segue to a candid political debate between Snowden and Mills, who politely butt heads on their views. While the protest is historically accurate given the timeline of events, and the debate is charming to watch unfold, what heightens its gravity is the choice to shoot on location in front of the White House.
A common theme in Snowden is whistleblowers and journalists share common ground. More often than not, their roles overlap and the film serves as a timely reminder of why the public needs them both. Despite the heavy focus on Snowden, the story also features journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and Janine Gibson (Joely Richardson), showcasing their investigative efforts in 2013 when the NSA story initially broke. It’s also an examination of how both parties are willing to make sacrifices in order to inform the public of issues that may negatively affect them.
Going into this film, many viewers will likely have a preconceived picture in their mind of who Snowden is based on media coverage. However, under Stone’s direction, Snowden is presented simply as a man doing what he believes is right for his country. Many biographical films run the risk of being overly dramatized in an effort to fill theater seats, but here there is a confident ease with which the subject matter is handled.
The film also explores how post-9/11 cyber warfare has become a real danger, and how whoever is in power has the ability to hack into another nation’s private servers. This sense of power is seen in the interplay between Snowden and his well-established antagonist, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), a power-hungry CIA recruiter with shady motives. In one scene, O’Brian appears as a kind of Big Brother on a large monitor juxtaposed with Snowden, who appears small and vulnerable in contrast. Corbin admits computers can now be used as weapons in what is essentially a modern online battlefield.
While the film is a biographical drama, it plays out like a suspense thriller. Each scene is narrowly focused with a tangible sense of electricity, directly connected to the elements of tension scattered throughout. The chief source of this suspense is Snowden’s challenge of escaping successfully with the incriminating evidence. There is an inherent concentration on each moment leading up to a crescendo, which can be credited to the linear storytelling. This impressive handling of a tricky story correlates to Stone’s nearly 50 years of experience handling heavy subjects with a maturity of direction.
An established trend in Oliver Stone’s films is he frequently dissects true events that emanate from a politically disputed place. He often makes his own position clear, but Stone presents all the facts to allow the viewers to reach their own conclusions. Stone has the ability to tap into the issues that are receiving attention, invariably covering interesting subjects dripping in controversy.
On the surface this film is a refreshing addition to the biographical genre, given the relevance of the subject. As usual, Stone presents the full account for the viewer to consider, but by the end, there is no doubt about the director’s personal view of Snowden as a hero. Snowden is boosted by a note of promise throughout and subsequently concludes with an optimistic message about the nation’s future; Snowden is positioned as a course correction to counter a government apparatus gone awry.
3.5 out of 5 stars