Today the world knows the name Edward Snowden. I remember driving home from work and listening to the radio as broadcasters recounted the hysteria surrounding this most elusive man that fled the country for fear of federal retribution. He had told the world of our government’s dirty secrets. The American government was spying on the whole world, even ourselves. Was he a hero? Or a traitor? The debate raged as we all followed the story of the former NSA operative that had leaked evidence to London’s The Guardian news organization. Eventually he ended up in Moscow while trying to get to Ecuador for asylum when our government was seizing the Ecuadorian leader’s plane and searching for him. So it goes.
What I enjoyed about this film was that it managed to make a normal man in an extraordinary situation compelling enough for film. This is mostly due to the performances of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as the titular Snowden, and Shailene Woodley as his girlfriend Lindsay Mills. Don’t get me wrong though, the rest of the cast was great as well and I was pleasantly surprised to see many more recognizable faces throughout the film’s runtime. The bigger names included Rhys Ifans as Snowden’s CIA mentor, Zachary Quinto as Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian alongside Tom Wilkinson as Ewen MacAskill, Timothy Olyphant as a charming- yet seedy- NSA operative, and even a restrained Nic Cage! Oh and Scott Eastwood as a manager of sorts in the NSA, at least he was more useful here than in Suicide Squad, he’s getting better.
Oliver Stone wisely begins the movie with Snowden’s initial meeting with the journalists and retreads how he came to this point beginning with his time in the military before transfering to the intelligence field after discovering his physical limitations. He starts out on the side of conservatism as he rapidly advances through the CIA’s programs. Shortly thereafter he meets Lindsay Mills, a staunch and passionate liberal. They hit it off and Stone wisely makes this relationship the emotional cornerstone of the film. From there we follow Snowden as he witnesses the government’s reach grow as does his security clearances because of his own intellect and skill. Snowden increasingly becomes unsettled by the actions of those around him as his suspiscion of our government’s intentions intensifies.
At one point Snowden prompts Lindsay to be more careful about her personal content on her computer. She retorts with “Why should I care? I have nothing to hide.” That’s just it though, people deserve the right to privacy, you don’t have to have anything to hide for that to matter. Oliver Stone does a fine job in handling this debate in my opinion, and its a very important discussion that we seem to be terrible at having, or even considering at times. The difference between how people behave and act in public spaces versus in their own privacy is important and a neccesary component to a healthy society. Stone’s film does take a side, clearly, and this may not be the most action heavy, or awe inspiring movie of the year but it certainly centers itself on a subject and event that people seem to have forgotten in as little as three years time when we really should have taken that time to consider the ramifications of what he did. Snowden is heroic because he gave up his own freedoms and life in order to be the digital canary in the coal mine, he told the world a terrifying truth-we’ve given up our own freedoms and privacy without even realizing it.
Where the film lacks for me is that while the conversation is inherently interesting the story as a whole never quite goes there, if you know what I mean. The film lacks that satisfying punch, it lends itself more to a subdued restraint. It’s similar to a good joke, the build up is fascinating, but the punchline lacks the bluster you want, while still being kinda funny. This film is a good joke, but not a great one. However I cannot state enough the importance of the content at hand. This film will probably go down in the annals of film history as being more talked about and discussed than watched and rewatched, but maybe that’s okay. Not every film needs that. Some just need to present you with a debate, or an idea. Snowden does that, and in my opinion it succeeds by doing so effectively.
Final Score: 4/5