My Rating: 8 out of 10
Going into Snowden, I had certain expectations. Like Sully, Spotlight, and many others, Snowden is a film in which the central plot point is a recent and widely publicized real life event. Thus, Oliver Stone had to take on the task of making the film grip the audience in a way that did not depend entirely on plot twists. In this case, he opted to make a movie that took a personal look at who Snowden was when he was away from the public eye. For example, we get to understand more about his personality and relationship with his girlfriend, Lindsay. But even more central to the film is the importance of the privacy debate, which I think was Stone’s key focus.
Edward Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the film) became a ubiquitous public figure in 2013 when he leaked classified documents to the press after uncovering the fact that the US government was spying on millions of innocent people both at home and abroad. He immediately became a polarizing political figure, both within America and throughout the world. Some see Snowden as a dangerous traitor who compromised national security, while others see him as a hero for uncovering an illegal spying system. Oliver Stone is well known for his liberal positions and puts them on full display in many of his films. While I personally agree with his position on Snowden’s leaks, I am always a bit skeptical of films that depict real life events with bias of any sort. For this reason, I went into the theatre expecting a one-sided telling of the story. However, while Stone’s opinion isn’t hidden by any means within the film, he does present the other side of the privacy debate through Lindsay (played by Shailene Woodley) and Corbin O’Brian (played by Rhys Ifans), even if only to have Gordon-Levitt’s Snowden debunk most of their arguments.
While I was happy to see the other side of the privacy debate presented in the film, I was disappointed in the artistic way Stone brought in those arguments. Most of the scenes were done in a way that made them feel like exposition for the purpose of getting a point across. For example, Lindsay and Snowden have a number of fights throughout the film about the secretive nature of his job as a government contractor. He obliviously cannot tell her anything about the mass surveillance, but he tries to protect her by putting a bandaid over her laptop camera. She often tells him that she isn’t concerned about her privacy being invaded since she has nothing to hide. This is an opinion that many Americans have professed in the years since the Snowden revelations, which is refuted by Gordon-Levitt’s Snowden when he says that everyone has something to hide. I understand the motivation that Stone has in bringing this popular opinion up and rebuking it. He wants to make the point that Snowden’s leaks haven’t been acted upon in the way many privacy advocates had hoped for when they were first revealed, due to a lack of real interest by the public. However, the addition of scenes like these felt blatantly expositional and took me out of the story, which I felt was my biggest issue with Snowden.
Snowden’s talks with Corbin O’Brien (a fictional CIA mentor) also lean into the realm of overly expositional. The duo talk numerous times throughout the film about the state of privacy in a manner that never feels outright forced, but is clearly only there to present certain ideas. Corbin’s character itself is a bit of an Orwellian, big brother archetype that Stone created to increase the drama and personify the shadowy government organizations central to the story. Despite some clunky exposition, both Lindsay and Corbin were realistic characters and had their own understandable motivations, which helped minimize the damage that over exposition had on the film. On top of this, Corbin’s conversations with Snowden are peppered with some of the most interesting quotes and ideas in Snowden. While Corbin is clearly meant to be a foil to Snowden, he is not portrayed as ill intentioned or nefarious. He merely has a different idea of what is important when it comes to protecting America. In the end, both Corbin and Snowden are patriots, but it will be up to history to decide which method of patriotism is best.
While Lindsay is not quite as fleshed out as Corbin, she does have believability to her character, thanks mostly to her relationship with Snowden, which I felt was very well done. Shailene Woodley and Joseph Gordon-Levitt had excellent chemistry as a screen couple. The two of them also did a great job with their specific roles, though (to be totally honest) from what I know of Shailene’s politics and personality, the character wasn’t too far removed from her real self. In terms of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance, I was concerned at first that his obviously different appearance from the real Edward Snowden would make it difficult to suspend disbelief, however this was not the case. After the first few minutes, I was completely invested in the fact that I was watching Edward Snowden and not an actor playing him. On a side note, I thought that the inclusion of the real Snowden at the end of the film was a nice touch that really drove home the main points.
While I thoroughly enjoyed Snowden and found myself thinking about the film for days after leaving the theatre, I think that Stone knew what kind of ideas he wanted to express, but had trouble with what kind of movie he wanted to make. There are excellent scenes between characters that build motivations and explore personalities. There are a couple suspenseful sequences that I found very gripping (even if slightly unrealistic and over dramatic). And there are a great deal of important, thought-provoking ideas brought up. But, overall, it seemed that Stone was unsure of whether he wanted to present ideas or delve deeper into the minds of his “characters.” This uncertainty spilled into nearly every aspect of the film from the structuring (with its many flashbacks) to some of the conversations between characters (as previously mentioned). It felt like a dramatic reenactment of CitizenFour, which I thought did a more straightforward job of getting across the main points of the Snowden leaks and their importance. With that said, Stone never wavered from the ideas he wished to present, which were: the importance of privacy and the idea that technology has changed the world in ways that most people don’t yet realize. These ideas, especially the latter one, are extremely interesting and important, which help make up for the artistic issues.
The idea of technological warfare, which is just as important as privacy in Snowden, is something that I never really thought much about. At the start of the film, Snowden tries to make it as a special ops soldier, but is unable to do so since his body can’t physically handle the strain. He is then able to use his intellect and love of computers to join the CIA and NSA. At first, Snowden feels that he isn’t as important as the soldiers fighting abroad, but after a conversation with Corbin he begins to have a different mindset. Corbin explains that the future battlefield is in cyberspace and that in ten years no one will care about countries like Iraq and Syria. Instead, we will be focused on China, Russia, and Iran (countries with powerful cyber capabilities). This really stood out to me since it makes a lot of sense (especially based on the news stories that we’ve seen during the last few years). Soldiers trained to fight physical battles will become increasingly unnecessary in comparison to soldiers like Snowden who are proficient in digital warfare. Weapons like bombs will be replaced by hackers who can steal information and effect economic markets. The nuclear warheads of this new era will be a technology that already exists: the ability to shut down power grids of entire countries. Such an attack would lead to unimaginable chaos in our technology-reliant world. Like the soldiers we are all familiar with, those who fight in cyberspace also suffer from trauma, which I thought Stone did an excellent job of representing in the film through all the scenes in which Snowden’s health and relationship with Lindsay were strained by his work.
In the end, the film shows that despite Snowden’s choice to come forward with the information, not much has changed since 2013. The high-ranking politicians we elect all hold similar positions on privacy, which is that it is secondary to security. This belief is not necessarily wrong in the grand scheme of things. Like Corbin says, if people want to play with the fancy new toys that technological advancements have given us, they need to pay the price for that privilege. I found myself thinking of the interview that John Oliver did with the real Edward Snowden in Russia and how Snowden still seemed hopeful that things would change, whereas John Oliver tried to show him that most Americans don’t care about these issues and, for the most part, don’t even realize what’s going on. Stone makes a point towards the end of the film that, if things don’t change soon, there will be more and more people born into a world where privacy was never guaranteed. Those of us that remember a time before the Internet and mass-surveillance will dwindle until there is not anyone left who cares enough to fight for privacy rights. When Snowden applies for the CIA position at the start of the film, he mentions that he is fan of Ayn Rand (and a conservative). An idea of hers comes up in the interview about how one man can alter the course of the world. This is poetic in a way. Even after becoming more liberal towards the culmination of the film, it is obvious that Snowden still adheres to this belief and hoped that exposing the spying program would help change things. However, his actual effect on policy has yet to be determined.
Overall, I recommend seeing Snowden if you are interested in politics or, specifically, the Snowden leaks. I feel that Stone did a good job of presenting the reality of what happened in what will certainly be seen as an important point in history (if not a turning point). It is definitely a dramatized Hollywood version of the story peppered with Stone’s opinions, but the film brings up many interesting ideas that will leave you thinking about Snowden for a long time. However, if you are more interested in seeing a straightforward presentation of the facts, I recommend watching CitizenFour instead. Regardless of anyone’s political leaning or opinion of the real Edward Snowden, 2013 marked an important moment in history if only due to the fact that it revealed just how much technology and the internet changed the world while the majority of us didn’t even notice.