Oliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’ challenges audiences on NSA spying, but fails to deliver much entertainment
Who is Edward Snowden? Is Ed Snowden a whistleblower or a traitor? Those two of the driving questions for director Oliver Stone with his latest biopic, Snowden, centering on the NSA contractor who went public with details of the massive surveillance by the U.S. government. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the titular character, nailing Snowden’s voice and mannerisms, with Shailene Woodley (Divergent series) starring as his girlfriend Lindsay.
Snowden crosscuts between the big public release from Hong Kong and flashbacks throughout Ed’s journey from military training, getting injured and then beginning a unique transition into modern surveillance and the war on terror. Audiences get to see the incredible scrutiny and security surrounding our intelligence community alongside the dark and shady side, brought to life with Justified Timothy Olyphant as a field agent willing to do “anything” to get leverage over a foreign source.
Gordon-Levitt’s Edward is a protagonist, conflicted by the overreaching Bush administration ramping up monitoring, skirting the FISA courts and is optimistic that President Obama will live up to his promises for change. Sadly, the monitoring is expanded, deepened and corrupted into the new cyber warfare which violates many civil rights.
The ethical questions are spoon-fed to the audience using a chilling performance by Rhys Ifans and some early scenes with Nicolas Cage to set up the moral conflict which drove Snowden to turn to Glenn Greenwald (played by Star Trek‘s Zachary Quinto) and Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo).
Stone’s agenda is clear: America is doing too much. The government (both the Bush and Obama administration) is spying on ALL Americans with incredible abilities to highjack your laptop, cell phone and ultimately, your life.
That said, Snowden never gets heavy-handed. Stone somehow controls himself and present a lot of information without turning the film into an anti-America film. It raises A LOT of questions, but offers little opinion from the filmmakers. Stone wants the audience uncomfortable (like agents spying on a woman taking off her burka or watching people have sex through a webcam), but never pushes too much.
Sadly, the topic is tedious, drab and boring at times. It’s the nature of the tech talk, the invisible threat and the espionage genre. The Rubik Cube is the only major creative liberty that I picked up on (and quickly verified), but it’s very interesting and engaging.
Gordon-Levitt’s Edward is personable, likable and engaging. Woodley is not as flat as she is in other films, but the bigger distraction is some awful makeup in a couple of scenes. The audience should NEVER notice the makeup on an actor. Ifans is fantastic, Quinto is wasted except for one profanity-laden rant and the rest of the cast is serviceable.
Snowden serves audiences well as a 101 lesson on the NSA, modern surveillance and the challenges of cyber terrorism in modern times.
Snowden receives 3 1/2 out of 5 stars
Folks following the case closely will enjoy the re-creation of the Hong Kong broadcasts, the behind the scenes look at the NSA and many of the references interwoven into the story. The film couldn’t decide if there should be more or less of this catering to the insiders, so if fails to deliver a more engaging film, but if that’s you, you should try to see this ASAP.
If you want an anti-Obama, anti-Bush, anti-Trump, anti-Hillary or thesis on how to vote, don’t go – that is NOT what Oliver Stone is doing with Snowden.