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Snowy Reception

Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Open Road Films
 134 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by:  Oliver Stone
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley

If Edward Snowden didn’t exist, you’d have to think he was exactly the type of fictional character that Oliver Stone would build a movie around. Like many of Stone’s heroes from the real Ron Kovic to the fictional Bud Fox, Snowden is young, handsome, patriotic, idealistic, and rather naïve about the ways of the world. Further, Snowden’s story, which is both another cautionary tale about governmental overreach and a sometimes suspenseful cyberthriller, plays into Stone’s strengths as well. Yet curiously, despite Stone’s efforts and solid work by a first-rate cast, the movie Snowden isn’t as successful as it could, and really should, have been.

For those unfamiliar with the details of the case, Edward Snowden is a former CIA employee and government contractor who, in 1913, copied highly classified material from the National Defense Agency and leaked the information to various journalists, who soon published the material in The Guardian and The Washington Post. The sensational leaked information revealed that the U.S. government had been covertly gathering information about millions of citizens for years. After the information was published, the federal government brought espionage charges against Snowden, who was later granted asylum in Russia.

The movie begins with Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), shortly after making off with his information, arriving in Hong Kong to meet with various journalists, including reporter Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), and Guardian bureau chief Ewen McAskill (Tom Wilkinson). After these opening scenes, the film is largely told in flashbacks, dating to Snowden’s days in the U.S. Army, before joining the CIA. These earlier scenes alternate with a few scenes set in Hong Kong, as the journalists gradually become aware of the magnitude of Snowden’s information.

After being discharged from the Army after breaking his legs in a training accident, Snowden joins the CIA where his computer expertise is put to use as a cybersecurity expert in Geneva, Switzerland. There, he first learns about the extent of ongoing illegal government surveillance (see scene below). After he helps recruit a prominent Pakistani banker to work for the Agency by arranging for the man to be arrested for drunk driving, Snowden becomes disillusioned and quits the Agency. Instead of revealing his information to the press right away, he waits until after the 2008 Presidential election, in the hope that Obama will stop the ongoing surveillance.

Instead, when Snowden gets another job with Dell Computers, where he is contracted out to the National Security Agency, he discovers to his dismay that the NSA has expanded on its illegal surveillance and is also lying to Congress about it. He decides to quit his job, but before he goes, he manages to surreptitiously copy tens of thousands of classified documents.

There are several ways to look at Snowden, and the film works well on most levels. As played by Gordon-Levitt, Snowden is a very low key character, the antithesis of Tom Cruise’s Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July. His conversion from patriot to whistleblower is mostly shown in a series of reaction shots as he grows increasingly disgusted with what the U.S. government is doing. Since he can’t talk to anyone about what he’s going through, the powerful picture emerges in bits and pieces. It’s a solid, yet easy-to-overlook performance by Gordon-Levitt.

Beyond the personal drama, Snowden also succeeds well as a real life spy thriller. Snowden makes the copies he needs onto a flash drive literally under the noses of a couple of dozen other NSA employees and then comes up with a clever ruse to get the drive out past sophisticated x-ray scanning equipment. Oliver Stone directs this scene as if he were helming a fictional thriller, and, even though the audience knows that Snowden (who risked a lengthy prison term if caught) gets out safely, the scene is still remarkably suspenseful. Later, after Snowden’s leaked material is published, he has to go into hiding in Hong Kong before he is able to finally board a flight to Russia.

The fast pace and suspense at the end of the movie is a welcome relief after a middle section that’s a bit of a slog. Other than the voyeuristic aspects of Snowden’s relationship with girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), his personal life is nowhere near as interesting as his work life, and his work isn’t all that interesting either, other than the movie’s frequent reveals of the full nature of the surveillance to which Snowden was a party. The movie shows, as Lindsay eventually learns to her dismay, that government surveillance extended into their bedroom, thanks to a laptop camera that might have been remotely activated. Most of the time, however, Snowden falls into the same trap that ensnares other movies about cyberespionage, namely that watching someone type commands on a keyboard and look at a monitor generally isn’t all that interesting.

Snowden boasts an impressive supporting cast, including Rhys Ifans and Nicolas Cage (in a rare non-embarrassing role) as two of Snowden’s mentors at the CIA with distinctly different ideas about the nature of what the Agency should be doing. Timothy Olyphant also shows up as Snowden’s section chief in Geneva, yet another agent with a most flexible sense of morality. Most impressive of all might be Edward Snowden himself, who shows up at the end of the movie in an interview scene, with Stone using some deft editing to seamlessly transition from Gordon-Levitt to the actual Snowden in the scene.

Oliver Stone’s other movies with similar heroes drawn to a cause like Born on the Fourth of July and J.F.K., feature larger than life protagonists, but Edward Snowden, at least as portrayed here, simply isn’t that type of individual. Instead, he is completely low key, with a quiet demeanor that covers his political conversion quite well. That makes for an interesting character in real life, but not necessarily a dynamic figure on film. Fortunately, the revelations of what Snowden uncovered and how he got the information out are far more interesting. Oliver Stone relies on his usual directorial skills to turn those aspects of Snowden’s life into a suspense thriller and is general successful in his efforts. The end result is a movie that’s decently entertaining in the Jason Bourne mold, but not the sort of riveting drama that marks the best of Stone’s work.

In this scene, Joseph Gordon-Levitt learns for the first time how much information the government has at its disposal.

Read other reviews of Snowden:


Snowden (2016) on IMDb