Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Language and some Sexuality/Nudity
Directed by: Oliver Stone
Written by: Kieran Fitzgerald & Oliver Stone
(based on the books THE SNOWDEN FILES by Luke Harding and TIME OF THE OCTOPUS by Anatoly Kucherena)
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Rhys Ifans & Nicolas Cage
I’ve been looking forward to SNOWDEN for a while now. Though director/writer Oliver Stone has suffered a mediocre slump in his output, this controversial story seemed like the kick in the pants that he needed to reinvigorate his filmography. This movie was originally supposed to be released on Christmas 2015, but for some reason it was delayed until May 2016, until it eventually was postponed until September. SNOWDEN has finally hit theaters with minimal promotion, mixed reviews, and a handful of screenings per theater. There’s a positive side to this though. My Tuesday night showing was sold-out and audience word-of-mouth has been extremely positive. Remarkably, this biopic doesn’t choose a side in the conflict, but rather presents points that Snowden might be a hero, a traitor, or a bit of both. This political thriller leaves that aspect for the viewer to decide.
In June 2013, NSA contractor Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) leaked classified documents to the press that exposed government surveillance programs that infringed on the civil rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens. This led to treason charges and a hot debate over security vs. freedom that still hasn’t fully been resolved in the public eye. This film spans from 2004 to 2013 in showing Snowden’s injured exit from the military, experience in the CIA, relationship with his girlfriend, and time in the NSA that ultimately pushes him to sacrifice everything to deliver information to the public.
Whether you think he’s a traitor who deserves execution or a hero who should be celebrated, this film presents itself as a balanced character study of Edward Snowden. Though I’ve seen reviewers claim that this movie merely rehashes real-life events and nothing more, I wouldn’t consider that to be a negative when the events are incredibly interesting and troubling. This cinematic version of Edward Snowden is grounded on a human level thanks to a heavily developed relationship with his opposites-attract photographer girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has proven himself to be an excellent actor in the past and that certainly doesn’t change here as he becomes Edward Snowden. From the mannerisms to the distinct way of speaking, I forgot that I was watching Levitt. He’s that good. Shailene Woodley (who’s had dramatic ups and angsty downs) gives her best work to date as Lindsay Mills. The quality performances don’t end with those two though, because Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, and Zachary Quinto are great as three journalists with Snowden confidential info. Scott Eastwood shows up as a temperamental NSA employee. Timothy Olyphant plays a smarmy CIA agent. Rhys Ifans shines as Snowden’s mentor and “friend,” which makes later scenes even more intense to watch. Finally, Nicolas Cage delivers his best performance in a decade with five minutes of screen time as a CIA instructor.
SNOWDEN’s narrative is non-linear, opening with 2013’s fateful meeting of journalists and then flashing back to 2004. The film progressively shifts between Snowden’s interviews with the three reporters back to his progress through the CIA and NSA. This makes for a captivating experience as Stone is cramming nine eventful years into just over two hours. It’s also interesting to watch the past timeline catch up with the 2013 wraparound. Though Oliver Stone’s visual style can occasionally be a bit much (did we really need a lovey-dovey scene projected onto Snowden’s hotel window?), SNOWDEN also weaves in actual footage and news clips. There are clips of both current presidential candidates voicing (unsurprisingly) negative opinions about him, pieces of actual news stories from the leak and Obama’s reactions to the fallout. Be sure to stay through the first half of the credits for extra tidbits.
Though it also functions as a dramatic biopic, SNOWDEN plays out like a paranoid thriller that’s made even more intense by this story being factual. We’d be naïve not to think that the NSA is still up to stuff and that we’re still being watched on a daily basis. However, Stone’s film wisely presents fuel for both sides of the argument. There’s talk of the modern battlefield being everywhere, but also about the sacrifice of freedom for security. It’s a huge gray area with no easy answers and the film doesn’t choose a side. Instead, Oliver Stone’s return-to-form is sure to keep you thinking about it long after the credits have rolled, could inspire new feelings towards one of America’s most controversial figures, and may make you paranoid enough to put a Band-Aid over your webcam.