The NSA’s illegal surveillance techniques are leaked to the public by one of the agency’s employees, Edward Snowden, in the form of thousands of classified documents distributed to the press.
I’ve been aware of the debate and discussion around Edward Snowden since his information became public, without ever reading into the subject matter in great detail, so I was intrigued to see this biopic from Oliver Stone to find out a bit more about the story (I missed ‘Citizenfour’, Laura Poitras acclaimed documentary which is alluded to here). Oliver Stone is a great director when he’s on his game and I thought ‘Snowden’ was a strong retelling of a fascinating true life story. For a director who often imbues his films with a clear political stance, I felt Stone’s work here was surprisingly restrained and that was for the better as he largely allowed the story to tell itself and the audience to judge without being pushed in any specific direction. The film is a thriller but not in the conventional sense, with a focus more on people sitting at computers or having hushed conversations in hotel rooms, but the direction and performances do a terrific job of bringing some tension into the narrative and I was fully invested and engrossed in Edward Snowden’s story.
The film flashes back and forward in time, alternating between the hotel room in Hong Kong where Snowden met with three journalists (Tom Wilkinson, Melissa Leo and Zachary Quinto) to exchange the information he’d gathered, and his career with the CIA and NSA where he gradually learnt about the extent of the US’s surveillance programme. I must confess my ignorance here to the sheer extent of the surveillance programme, particularly with regards to the way you could be tracked through a turned off laptop or phone and it’s truly staggering. ‘Snowden’ does a good job of bringing the programme to life without getting too bogged down in technical details, although I feel the film missed an opportunity to explore the human cost of this programme beyond the small period spent with the Pakistani banker. ‘Snowden’ is driven by an excellent leading performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who not only looks like ‘Snowden’ when he puts the glasses on, but captures his voice and mannerisms perfectly. Shailene Woodley is equally good as his long term girlfriend and I felt the film did strong work in balancing the political thriller aspects of the story with a focus on his personal life and how work started to impact on it. The supporting cast is wide and varied and the minor characters are brought to life well by this group, with Rhys Ifans a particular highlight from my perspective.
I’ve been surprised to an extent by the middling reaction to ‘Snowden’ and perhaps this is down to the success of ‘Citizenfour’ and a general familiarity with the story. From my perspective I thought the film was excellent and would recommend it to anyone with a passing interest in Edward Snowden’s story, and as the man says himself, this is another way to widen the exposure of his story and continue to open up the conversation about the way our governments behave in an era where we’re always connected in one way or another.
Directed By: Oliver Stone
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Nicolas Cage, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Schnetzer, LaKeith Lee Stanfield, Joely Richardson and Robert Firth