At first glance, Edward Snowden’s life would make for an excellent political thriller. Here is someone who enlisted in the United States Army Reserve to fight in the Iraq War because he wanted to make a difference. When that didn’t pan out, he got a job in the CIA and distinguished himself thanks to his computer skills. From there, he worked for Dell and was soon assigned to the NSA. It was there that he became disillusioned with the global surveillance programs the U.S. government used in cooperation with telecommunications companies and European governments. He copied and then leaked classified information while hiding out in Hong Kong.
This kind of story would seem an ideal fit for a politically minded filmmaker like Oliver Stone who championed fiercely committed protagonists that buck the system in films like Salvador (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), and JFK (1991). Since that unprecedented run of films in the 1980s and 1990s, the director has slowed down somewhat. Sure, there was the ambitious historical epic Alexander (2004), but also the surprisingly toothless W. (2008), and the ultimately disappointing Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010). With Snowden (2016), there was the hope among his fans that the material would reinvigorate Stone and mark a return to form.
The film begins in June 2013 when Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) in Hong Kong. They go to his hotel room where he tells them his life story for a documentary she’s filming and an article he’s writing. Stone proceeds to employ flashbacks to tell Snowden’s story.
Much like Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, he joins the army out of a sense of duty and patriotism but a freak accident quickly derails his military career. Fortunately, Snowden has impressive computer skills and gets a job at the CIA where he becomes a different kind of soldier, armed with a P.C. He excels by demonstrating an uncanny ability to think outside the box, which impresses his instructor (Rhys Ifans).
The strongest scenes during his CIA training aren’t the actual training exercises but the quiet moments he has with senior analyst and teacher Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage) as they bond over the latter’s collection of vintage encryption and code-breaking devices. Nicolas Cage plays the man as a wise mentor and exudes an easy-going charisma as he tells Snowden how things work. It was a smart move on Stone’s part to have a skilled actor like Cage deliver exposition dialogue in a way that is engrossing. His chemistry with Gordon-Levitt is so enjoyable to watch that I’d love to see a film with just Forrester and Snowden.
Stone attempts to humanize Snowden through his interactions with girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) in a meet-cute in Washington, D.C. as his conservative patriotism playfully clashes with her leftist ideals. Their initial scenes foreshadow Snowden’s political awakening. Fortunately, Stone keeps Mills throughout the film thereby making her a crucial part of Snowden’s life and preventing her character from being reduced to the stock girlfriend role. It doesn’t hurt that he cast a strong actress in the part with Shailene Woodley.
Stone shows how Snowden’s belief in the U.S. government is gradually eroded when he is shown surveillance programs that can search anyone’s private email, chats, and hijack the camera on someone’s laptop for anything and this disturbs him. It is all fascinating and frightening at the same time because of its insidious nature. Stone gradually ratchets up the tension as Snowden and the journalists try to figure out what to do with the massive amount of information he’s given them and the implications of it.
Not surprisingly, the most compelling scenes in Snowden are the ones with him holed up in his hotel room with the Poitras, Greenwald and Scottish journalist Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) telling them what he knows. It is these scenes where Joseph Gordon-Levitt really excels by eerily channeling Snowden, right down to his distinctive voice and subtly mimicking his physical mannerisms.
Stone wisely doesn’t fall into the same trap as other films about computer hackers and try to portray what they do in a sexy, stylish way in order to keep our attention. Instead, he portrays it matter-of-factly as just another component of the film. Stylistically, Stone has left the full-throttled, multi-layered approach of films like JFK and Natural Born Killers (1994) behind long ago in favor of a more straightforward look with an emphasis on character and story. Unlike a lot of other films in the genre, Snowden not only puts a human face on it but also explores its moral and political implications in a thought-provoking way. Sadly, like Michael Mann’s Blackhat (2015), mainstream audiences weren’t interested in films about computer hacking no matter how compelling and Snowden failed to recoup its modest budget, which is a shame because his life is such a gripping story.
Snowden isn’t some fast-paced Jason Bourne spy movie. It is about a real person that decided to take an extreme risk to do what he thought was right. Like the protagonists in some of Stone’s other films, Snowden had to make a crucial decision that impacted the rest of his life but does it because he is compelled to do so through a strong sense of what he believes is right. Whether you agree or disagree with what he did, the film raises some troubling questions about our basic freedoms and rights in an age where we are under constant digital surveillance.