Oliver Stone liberally blends fact and fiction to create his portrait of the NSA whistleblower at the center of his film Snowden. The director, who co-wrote the script with Kieran Fitzgerald, admits as much, confessing that the way Edward Snowden secreted highly classified information out of an NSA facility was stylized for the movie. “[W]hen he lifted these materials and helped get them out to the public, it is not done in the realistic way that it was done. It was—we gave it a little juice, because it’s a drama, and because, frankly, it’s probably much more banal than you think, the way he did it.”
Stone is a filmmaker who is famous for using creative license to bring a bold streak of drama to real-life events. With Snowden, his amalgamation of truth and Hollywood spectacle is a magnificent success. Stone humanizes Edward Snowden, making him a guy with whom we can all relate, while portraying his actions and the events surrounding them as the tense, establishment-shaking moments they are.
If there is a direct corollary to Snowden in Stone’s earlier films, it is without a doubt Born on the Fourth of July. Indirectly, Platoon, Wall Street, and JFK also serve as examples of one of Stone’s major preoccupations. Both Snowden and Born on the Fourth of July are, at their core, the stories of men who initially believe in blind patriotism of the American Way. Over the course of the film, they learn that speaking truth to power and questioning their government are not only right, but quintessential qualities for being truly patriotic in the “American” way.
Ron Kovic, the real-life subject of July, initially believes there is no greater service he can perform for his country than serving in the military. By the film’s end, he has been moved by his experiences to recognize that the greatest thing he can do for America is challenge the government for waging an unjust and immoral war. As well as disposing of the lie that the U.S. cares as deeply for all of its veterans as politicians claim.
Snowden follows a very similar trajectory. At the start, Edward Snowden, like Kovic, wants to express his love of country by serving in the Army. Due to abnormally frail legs, which he breaks during training, Snowden is discharged and decides to fight for his homeland in a different way. He can use his computer coding and programming skills to fight on the cyber battlefield for the intelligence community.
Stone then charts Snowden’s disillusionment as he discovers the vast amounts of data about the American citizenry that the government is collecting; all in the name of security and anti-terrorism. It’s an eight-year odyssey told in flashback as Snowden relays his story to Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewen MacAskill, the three journalists he’s chosen to turn over the proof he stole. The scenes detailing Snowden’s first meeting with these reporters, as well as their subsequent interview sessions while holed up in a Bangkok hotel room, are electrifying bits of cloak-and-dagger worthy of the best spy thrillers.
The movie is not just a series of computer hacking scenes replete with techno jargon, though. The primary focus of Snowden is to make this controversial figure, who took extreme actions, into a real-life human being. Much of the movie focuses on his long-term relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills, doing a fantastic job of showing how these two people shaped one another and the intensely difficult strain his classified work placed on them. A potent example of this is Edward’s increasing reticence to be photographed. This leads to his horrified realization during an intimate moment with Lindsay that there is an open laptop in the room. He knows the NSA has the ability to turn on video and audio recording in such devices at will. Anyone is susceptible to their most private acts becoming fodder for government intrusion, fourth amendment be damned.
Stone and Fitzgerald’s script is the backbone for such strong and realistic scenes between the couple, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley have a chemistry on screen that really brings these characters to life. The passion the two performers display feels immediate and raw. This is especially true in several fights the couple have due to Mills’ frustrations at Snowden’s growing distance from her because of his work.
Gordon-Levitt and Woodley’s performances aren’t the only ones that deserve to be singled out. As is usually the case with Oliver Stone films, this one is brimming with talented actors. Zachary Quinto as Glenn Greenwald is ferociously intent on getting the story out. Melissa Leo is quiet but singularly focused as the journalist and documentarian Laura Poitras. Rounding out this trio is veteran character actor Tom Wilkinson doing an impeccable Scottish brogue as Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill.
The one false note the entire movie strikes is the few scenes featuring Nicholas Cage as Hank Forrester, a teacher Snowden encounters while preparing for his career in the intelligence community. Cage’s performances can achieve a bewildering beauty, but here his odd mannerisms only succeed in distracting. His character serves little purpose other than providing a few tidbits of exposition. It seems like the only reason Forrester wasn’t left on the cutting room floor was so he could deliver a reaction to his wife. “He did it. He really did it,” Cage says with a grin while he watches a story about Snowden’s revelations on the evening news.
Snowden is otherwise a showcase of Oliver Stone’s filmmaking mastery. There is a restraint to this film that is usually missing from Stone’s other movies. Missing are the wild, off-kilter angles and break-neck editing pace of movies like JKF and Natural Born Killers. While his technique for those movies worked, he wisely chose a quieter tone for Snowden, allowing the audience to sink fully into the story as Edward Snowden himself sinks deeper onscreen.
Snowden melds a story that the filmmakers clearly feel passionately about, with actors delivering finely crafted performances, and a style that beautifully compliments the subject matter. It’s a film that will stand as one of Oliver Stone’s best.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- This might only be a 4 star movie, but it gets the extra half star because of the subject matter. The ideas that bubble up from the conflict that Edward Snowden faces personally and professionally are very important. Privacy vs. Security, what we are willing to let our government do in the name of fighting terrorism, and how important the rule of law is to the American justice system are all questions every American needs to ponder. Snowden confronts its audience with these questions while also delivering a moving personal story.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- After seeing Snowden, I'm dying to check out the documentary Citizenfour. This is the film by Laura Poitras that chronicles her first meeting with Edward Snowden in Hong Kong. It served as one of the inspirations for Snowden, and in 2015 won the Best Documentary Oscar.
- Shailene Woodley kind of rocked my world in this film. She uses the smallest of facial expressions to convey a complex set of emotions under the surface. At 24, she's showing the range of a performer twice her age.