Directed by: Oliver Stone
Run time: 2 hours 14 minutes
I had mixed feelings heading into the theater to see Snowden — the film based on infamous NSA hacker Edward Snowden. On the one hand, director Oliver Stone has created some pretty amazing films (Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street, Platoon) but on the other hand, he can get overly political and I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend two hours of my life getting screamed at about privacy rights trumping our safety in a post 9/11 world. Still, I didn’t feel like I knew as much about Edward Snowden as I should and I was curious to see what actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt could do with the role of the quiet, almost robotic man. I’m so glad I gave this film a chance.
Snowden opens in a Hong Kong hotel lobby where documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and reporter Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) have arranged to secretly meet and interview Snowden regarding illegal surveillance practices at the NSA. The paranoid Snowden then tells his story of how he has ended up the world’s number one fugitive in a series of flashbacks of his career and life. We first go back to 2004, where Snowden has enlisted in the Special Forces. He is ill-equipped for this grueling job and injures his legs to the point that he is medically discharged from the military. We then move to 2006, where Snowden trains for a job at the CIA, a position much better suited to his considerable talents. At this time he also meets love interest Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) a free-spirited liberal who quickly captures the buttoned up conservative’s heart. We then move forward through Snowden’s fast paced career as he and Lindsay travel from Geneva to Tokyo to Hawaii. The more he learns about the NSA’s practices, the more conflicted he becomes about the capturing of data from all citizens regardless of whether or not they are suspected of a link to terror. Snowden eventually reaches his breaking point and steals proof of the surveillance program while escaping to Hong Kong, leaving Lindsay behind.
Like the character of Lindsay, my first thought on intrusive surveillance is that I have nothing to hide and I want the good guys to be able to thwart terror attacks in our country and save lives. I don’t think the NSA really cares about my recipe collection, my PTA forms or my family vacation photos. But should they have such access? Of course, if the NSA can turn on the camera on my laptop and watch me without my knowledge, that’s a definite no-no. But the difficult debate of maintaining privacy while preserving safety needs to be discussed and can’t be had unless we are aware of what is really happening. It’s a fascinating question that I’m not even sure has a right answer. The other big question is whether Edward Snowden is a hero or a traitor. I’m not sure of that answer either, but after watching this film I see what a difficult choice he had to make and I do believe that he felt strongly that he was doing the right thing when he became a whistleblower.
One thing is certain and it’s the fact that Joseph Gordon-Levitt has given an amazing performance as the enigmatic Snowden. This under-rated actor transformed into a man that we really only know from grainy photos and brief video clips. His relationship with Lindsay was less successfully portrayed as the chemistry between Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley was not as believable as I would have liked. I’m also not sure that it was necessary to structure the film in flashback sequences as once Snowden’s story catches up to the present, the momentum of the story seems to lag when it should naturally pick up pace. Regardless, this is an impressive film that takes a hard look at a challenging subject matter and stays with you as you ponder some very important and timely questions. Like last year’s hit movie The Big Short, when you see Snowden, you feel not only entertained but enlightened about important current events. It may not be the most thrilling subject, but the story is still fascinating.