THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Some people think Edward Snowden is a hero. Others think he's a traitor. Whatever your opinion, Oliver Stone's Snowden will help you look at him in a different light. In fact, the movie would make an amazing double feature with Citizenfour, the superb documentary by Laura Poitras (played here by Melissa Leo) that shows Snowden at the exact moment he was making history. Both pictures give significant insight, but taken together, they really help you understand a morally and ethically complex issue from a human perspective.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Snowden, and the film uses his Hong Kong hotel room interview with journalists Poitras, Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) as a framing device. From there, it recounts his earliest days as a computer whiz at the FBI, as well as his quick rise through the ranks. After some career frustrations, he starts working for the NSA, only to discover that – in the post-9/11 world – the United States government is using ultra-sophisticated technology to keep an eye on its own citizens. This includes being able to remotely and covertly activate people's cell phones and computer webcams. Snowden isn't entirely sure how comfortable he is with this. Eventually, he decides to leak classified documents to his reporter contacts in order to inform the world of what's happening.
The subject of Snowden feels like a natural fit for Oliver Stone, an often political filmmaker who isn't afraid to ruffle a few feathers. As you'd expect, he explores the nature of what the NSA was doing in nail-biting fashion. The scene where Snowden learns of the surveillance software is particularly unnerving, because the person showing it to him is so casual about its capabilities. The implications are forcefully driven home. A later scene, where Ed tries to smuggle a flash drive full of information out of the heavily-guarded building, is also quite intense.
What you might not expect, though, is that Stone's approach is just as much personal as it is political. Snowden spends a fair amount of time on Ed's relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley). He can't tell her what he knows, and his secrecy at times has a detrimental effect on their relationship, but she proves to be a driving force in his decision to blow the whistle. Once he realizes that innocent people like her can have their lives affected, or even manipulated, by the government, he starts to think in a bigger-picture way, deciding that citizens have the right to know that their electronic devices can potentially betray them. For this reason, Snowden plays less like a polemic than as a story about an ordinary guy who stumbles across something far, far bigger than he is, requiring him to make a difficult decision as to what's right.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is superb as Snowden, perfectly capturing his demeanor and speech. He also conveys the gut-wrenching inner turmoil Snowden certainly must have felt during the entire ordeal. You can feel his weariness, his determination, and his fearful understanding that the lid can never be put back on once he blows it off. Shailene Woodley is also excellent, making palpable Lindsay's alternate love for Ed and frustration over his career-imposed closed-off nature. The two are ably backed by a strong supporting cast that also includes Rhys Ifans as Corbin O'Brian, Ed's tough-as-nails mentor.
There's a lot to include in Edward Snowden's tale. Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald do a commendable job of making very complicated things easy to follow, without sacrificing their meaning or importance. Snowden glides efficiently from one event to the next. Essentially, the film puts the audience in Ed's shoes, assembling things a piece at a time, with each new connection deepening his – and our – understanding of the enormity of what the NSA is doing.
A few stray moments are perhaps a little too on-the-nose, and a couple supporting characters (including Nicolas Cage's cryptography expert) could have been more fully developed. It also feels a small bit disrespectful to Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance to show us the real Edward Snowden at the end. This is a common blunder in modern biopics.
Those minor issues aside, Snowden is a gripping, provocative, and scary look at a whistleblower whose revelations shocked the world.
( 1/2 out of four)
Snowden is rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 14 minutes.
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