In 2013 it was revealed to the world that the American government had been using cell phones and personal computers to spy on everyone. Everyone. Not just suspected terrorists, not just world leaders, not just members of espionage agencies, but everyone. This news was brought to us by Edward Snowden, a man who had worked for the CIA and later as a contractor for the CIA and the NSA. The film Snowden tells his story from 2004 when he was discharged from the Army Special Forces until 2013 when he went public with what he knew the NSA was doing (and, including denouments and epilogues, even as far as today with his current situation living in Moscow).
To say Edward Snowden is a controversial figure is something of an understatement. For all the millions who see him as a hero that forced at least some level of transparency on American leaders there are just as many who see him as a traitor who exposed American secrets to the world including its enemies, and then there are the millions more than that who don’t really care one way or another and would rather go back to a time of not knowing that they can be watched through their own personal devices. This is the first problem with the movie Snowden, it explores none of this and just gives us Edward Snowden, the hero. While it’s a positive that the movie decides to take a stance on its view of Edward Snowden, to show him only as a hero and portray everyone in his life as either a heroic or villainous figure is giving us a melodrama, not an honest look at recent history.
Snowden also has a problem with the way it tells its story for much of the time. While I greatly admire the fact that Stone (writer/director) and Fitzgerald (writer) never gave in to what could have been a real temptation to turn Edward Snowden’s story into a spy thriller in order to artificially raise the tension and pacing of the story, they could have done more with the story writing 101 maxim of show don’t tell. Far too much of Snowden is just characters speaking to each other, and too often telling each other things they wouldn’t need to be told because they are all part of the same world. When this isn’t happening we get Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Edward Snowden) narrating over the opening of new scenes again using lazy story telling technique. There are some truly great scenes in the film, with realistic drama and tension that get across to us what it must really have been like to have gone through what Edward Snowden must have experienced, but for every one of these moments there are another two or three that seem like Stone was just trying to push through the bits that need to be told so he could get to the bits he really wanted to tell.
The acting in Snowden is a little hit or miss, but none of the misses are the fault of the lead actors. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is spot on as Edward Snowden, and gives a performance that makes us forget that the man himself didn’t come over from Russia to play himself in a movie. We really believe his character transformation from 2004 through to 2013 and the Edward Snowden we get to see is one that we really believe could have transformed in exactly this fashion. As great as Levitt is, though, we’ve seen this before from him, the true revelation in this movie is Shailene Woodley as Edward Snowden’s long term, loyal, and long suffering girlfriend Lindsay Mills. She has to be the emotional core of the movie and she delivers extraordinarily and I suddenly want to see a lot more from Woodley in the future. As for the rest of the supporting cast, though, we get what amounts to a group of wooden or cartoony performances that can’t do any justice to the reality of Snowden’s story.
Despite all this, though, I feel that Snowden is a must-see movie. It’s not because of the way the story is told, because that is quite flawed, but because of the importance of the story itself. While I feel a lot more nuance about the motivations of those involved could have been put on display, the center of the story is still one that needs to be seen, the story about how one man felt that it was more important that he tell the truth than that he live the life he wanted to live. For that sacrifice alone people need to know what he did, and while there are more informative ways of finding out, this is still the most easily digestible and is a good place to start learning.
Rating: 5.4 out of 10 (but, see it anyway)