FILM REVIEW – SNOWDEN. With Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Zachary Quinto, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage. Written by Kieran Fitzgerald & Oliver Stone. Directed by Oliver Stone. Rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity. 134 minutes.
Oliver Stone doesn’t shy away from controversy, and with SNOWDEN, he’s locked on to an issue that will work up the partisans on both sides. Edward Snowden (portrayed here in a solid turn by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a government operative who worked for the CIA and the NSA, focusing on using the tools of the internet to fight terrorism.
As portrayed here, he’s a patriotic young man who washes out of the military after breaking his leg, but is eager to serve his country. A gifted programmer, he is doted on by his instructors (Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage) at the CIA and whose career is on the fast track. Eventually, he discovers that the government is prying into the phone calls and emails of ordinary American citizens in violation of the law. This isn’t troubling to the higher-ups who go so far as to lie to Congress when asked point blank if such a program is going on. That’s when Snowden decided to go public.
To those on his side–and that includes many people including filmmaker Stone–Snowden is a whistleblower and a hero, exposing illegal action by the government and bringing it to the attention of the American people. To others he’s a traitor, or worse, or revealed government secrets and may have put America at risk. The movie will not likely change anyone’s mind on that score.
What it does do is paint a portrait of the man, who is currently living in Russia because the U.S. has lifted his passport so he cannot travel. You may have seen the real Snowden in the Oscar-winning documentary “Citizenfour” (2014). Now we get a portrait of who he was before he sat down in a Hong Kong hotel room and revealed what he knew. The film spends a good deal of time on his relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), because it reveals a man whose “agenda” was to serve his country, make a home with the woman he loved, and not to become the focus of an international debate. It takes us through the process to the point where he felt he had no choice and could only act as he did.
The supporting cast is strong. In addition to Ifans and Cage as two very different CIA operatives, there’s also Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, and Tom Wilkinson as the journalists interrogating him, as well as apperances by Timothy Olyphant, Joely Richardson, Ben Chaplin, and Scott Eastwood. The weight of the film, though, is on Gordon-Levitt and Woodley and these are easily two of the best performances of the year. Gordon-Levitt easily portrays sympathetic characters, but this may his most nuanced performance as he struggles with not only the legal dilemma but some personal issues as well. Woodley may be best known for the “Divergent” series but, like Jennifer Lawrence of “The Hunger Games,” her non-franchise performances show her to be a serious and multi-faceted actress. Her Lindsay is supportive even when she doesn’t–and can’t–know what’s troubling her boyfriend.
The film ends with Snowden in exile giving a remote interview with Gordon-Levitt replaced by the real man. (We await filmgoers questioning why two actors were cast in the part.) Whether you believe his actions were justified or not–and the film makes the case they were–“Snowden” wants to show that Snowden the man acted from the best of motives, leaving the discussion as to whether he should be pardoned or prosecuted in a somewhat more ambiguous place.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.