By now, it’s reasonable to assume that you’ve heard the name Edward Snowden at some point over the past few years. The former CIA and NSA analyst made headlines worldwide after he exposed the far-reaching government surveillance programs that collected personal data on hundreds of millions of American citizens – even those who weren’t suspected of any wrongdoing. The documents that Snowden leaked to the press resulted in lawsuits, a presidential investigation and ultimately a series of reforms that imposed limits on the NSA’s data collection protocols – and also found Snowden himself charged with treason under the Espionage Act.
The whistleblower’s rise to infamy was already chronicled in Laura Poitras’ gripping documentary Citizenfour, filmed in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room as he met with journalists from The Guardian to coordinate the first major document leak, and Oliver Stone uses these events as a framing device for this engrossing dramatization. Stacking pillows around the doorframe to muffle the sounds of conversation and insisting that his visitors place their cell phones in a microwave so their signals are blocked, Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) may seem a bit overcautious – but when you stop to consider that he’s stolen a number of confidential files from the US government, it’s hard to fault the guy for wanting to stay off the grid.
The story unfolds in flashback as Snowden relates his tale to Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), speeding through his enlistment in the US Army Reserves, the injury that led to his discharge, and his pursuit of a career with the CIA. It’s during this interview that Snowden first catches the attention of Corbin O’Brian (an intense and chilling Rhys Ifans), who regards the promising young computer technician as an effective weapon against the ever-growing threat of cyberterrorism. “In 20 years, no one will care about Iraq,” he tells Snowden, and he’s not exactly off-base with that prediction. The real war is happening in the digital space, and people like Snowden will be the soldiers on the front line.
But war is ugly, and Snowden learns that he doesn’t always agree with the CIA’s tactics, especially when he observes a colleague (Ben Schnetzer) hacking into the Facebook account of a diplomat’s 15-year-old niece, searching for “leverage” they can use to manipulate him into becoming an informant. Paranoia begins to seep in – if the government can watch anyone at any time, does that mean they’re watching him too? As the stress threatens to unravel his budding romance with photographer Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), Snowden resigns from the CIA and takes a position as a cybersecurity expert with Dell, which ultimately leads to an assignment with the NSA – and a far more shocking revelation.
Gordon-Levitt gives a magnetic performance as Snowden, effectively capturing the personality and mannerisms that we’ve become familiar with through countless televised interviews featuring the man himself – although I’d be lying if I said the accent took awhile to grow accustomed to. Woodley is also great here, imbuing Lindsay with a fiery spirit while never sacrificing her tenderness. It’s great to see her in a film that actually showcases her ability, instead of smothering her performance with special effects and enormous action setpieces, and hopefully we’ll see more roles like this in her future. Snowden also boasts a number of smaller performances that bear mentioning, including Nicolas Cage as a jaded programmer who mentors young recruits, Tom Wilkinson as Greenwald’s incredulous editor, and Timothy Olyphant as a sleazy covert operative based in Geneva.
Viewers with only a vague understanding of who Snowden is and what he uncovered will likely be just as shocked as his cinematic counterpart by the depth of the NSA’s surveillance tactics, and Stone’s film could be poised to once again stoke the fires of the debate over security vs personal privacy. Opinions continue to differ over whether or not the real-life Snowden should be hailed as a hero or branded as a criminal, but while Stone’s point of view on the matter is never in doubt, he still manages to remain fairly even-handed in his portrayal of events. The film may be told from Snowden’s perspective, but the other side of the story is given enough credence that audiences can still understand what led to some of these decisions, despite how wrong they may have been.
With a running time of 134 minutes, I was concerned that Snowden would turn out to be yet another bloated release that could have benefited from a few more edits, but Stone handles the pacing with such expertise that the film practically races by. It’s considerably better than this year’s other high-profile espionage thriller – the bland, lifeless Jason Bourne – and thanks to a rock-solid cast and a compelling, ripped-from-the-headlines narrative, it’s also Oliver Stone’s best film in probably two decades. Whether or not you’re familiar with the story, Snowden is well worth a trip to your local cinema this weekend.