Review: Oliver Stone brings NSA leaker to life in biopic ‘Snowden’

July 23, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Oliver Stone is no stranger to controversial current events.

He explored the Vietnam War in “Platoon” (1986), the greed of high finance in “Wall Street” (1987), the plight of wounded vets in “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989), the Kennedy assassination in “JFK” (1991), the media glorification of murder in “Natural Born Killers” (1994), the Watergate scandal in “Nixon” (1995), the 9/11 attacks in “World Trade Center” (2006) and the Iraq War in “W.” (2008).

Now, Stone is at it again with his newest film “Snowden,” tracking controversial NSA leaker Edward Snowden who became a lightning rod in 2013 by exposing top-secret government monitoring of private citizens in a series of leaks to the media, sparking a global debate on “privacy vs. security” that divided those who deemed him a traitor and those who deemed him a heroic whistleblower.

The biopic picks up Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as a young military recruit discharged due to a nasty injury but reminded that there are other ways to serve his country. He becomes a computer-code wizard under the tutelage of Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage), a computer engineer demoted years ago for questioning the system, and Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), a staunch U.S. intelligence officer who grooms him to become one of the NSA’s top minds, not to mention his hunting buddy.

Transferred from city to city, the job takes a toll on his Maryland girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), who grows frustrated at his lack of work-life balance in a job he’s not even allowed to discuss. All the while, Snowden becomes increasingly conflicted about the job itself after discovering warrantless wiretaps by the U.S. government. Feeling a crisis of conscience, Snowden steals evidence on a flashdrive and leaks it to the world via the media (Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Melissa Leo).

The film is worth seeing alone for its performances, led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“500 Days of Summer”), who gives his best performance to date. Not only does he physically resemble Snowden, he demonstrates an uncanny mastery of his voice as he quietly declares, “My name is Edward Joseph Snowden.” From one Oliver Stone whistleblower to another, here’s hoping this makes any remaining cynics take Gordon-Levitt seriously, as Ron Kovic did for Tom Cruise in “Born on the Fourth of July.”

Equally electric — albeit in a far less developed, slightly distracting role — is Shailene Woodley, who attempts to reclaim the humanity of Lindsay Mills after salacious portraits on cable news. Here’s hoping the role marks a departure from Young Adult flicks like “Divergent” (2014) and “The Fault in Our Stars” (2014) and a return to more serious pursuits like her Golden Globe nod in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” (2011) and Sundance Special Jury Prize in “The Spectacular Now” (2012).

While the Snowden-Mills relationship arguments are explosive, Gordon-Levitt’s best scenes come in his spooked paranoia during his revelations in a Hong Kong hotel room, barricading the door with pillows, disarming cellphones in microwaves, hiding under a blanket while typing passwords on his laptop, and flinching each time the phone rings or the “Do Not Disturb” placard falls off the door.

Part of the excitement of these scenes are the skilled actors portraying the eager note-takers: Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto, “Star Trek”), his colleague Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson, “Michael Clayton”) and filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo, “The Fighter”), whose documentary “Citizenfour” not only made my Top 10 Movies of 2014 but went on to win an Oscar.

With such a front-row seat to history, “Citizenfour” obviously puts “Snowden” to shame. Just about any “fiction” film would feel sanitized and prepackaged compared to an exclusive, behind-the-scenes glimpse as it happened. If such reality is your film forte, might I also suggest two gems from this year’s AFI Docs slate: Alex Gibney’s “Zero Days” (2016) and Werner Herzog’s “Lo and Behold” (2016).

Nevertheless, “Snowden” is compelling narrative filmmaking in its own right. This is the second year in a row that Gordon-Levitt has tackled a real-life doc figure after portraying Philippe Petit from the doc “Man on Wire” (2008) in Robert Zemeckis’ dramatized narrative “The Walk” (2015). Often we need these mainstream versions to reach wider audiences, which is the whole point in the first place.

The job of adapting falls to both Stone and screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald (“The Homesman”), who base their script off a pair of nonfiction books: “The Snowden Files” by Luke Harding and “Time of the Octopus” by Anatoly Kucherena. Certain elements have been embellished for dramatic purposes, from Snowden’s mastery of a Rubik’s Cube, to the willingness of suspecting colleagues to lend a hand — or a foot — turning this “Born on the Fourth of July” into a super-spy Bourne on the Fourth of July.

Shot in D.C., Munich, Hawaii and Hong Kong, we get that globe-trotting feel of the best espionage thrillers, “scienced up” with talk of our Fourth Amendment rights, FISA courts under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, GPS drone strikes and morality lessons from the Nuremberg Trials.

Visually, Stone offers kaleidoscopic edits and out-of-focus pulls during Snowden’s epileptic fits, a few well-timed jump scares to match the voyeur horror of our perverted laptop cameras, “Big Brother” symbolism of a larger-than-life Ifans on a giant video screen looking down at Snowden, and a fade-to-white as Snowden makes his decision to walk out of an Oahu intel site into the cleansing light like Patrick Swayze in “Ghost” (1990) with the freedom of Andy Dufresne escaping “Shawshank” (1994).

At times, it’s all a bit much, yet for all these daring aesthetics, Stone ironically plays it too safe with his script, choosing the clear-cut route of hailing Snowden as an infallible saint rather than drilling down to mine the complexities of his moral dilemma. There’s also a heavy-handed thematic throughline of Snowden’s miraculous “conversion” from conservative to liberal, the prime objective of Woodley’s activist girlfriend, stated blatantly with exposition as they walk and talk around our nation’s capital.

Still, such critiques are ultimately soothed by the genuine feeling that Stone is going out of his way to be an equal-opportunity offender rather than a bleeding-heart preacher. He paints both Republicans and Democrats on the wrong side of history on the privacy issue, staking out a more libertarian position by showing archival clips of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both condemning Snowden.

There’s even a bit of lament at unfulfilled promises of transparency from the president, contrasting then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama promising to end the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretaps under the Patriot Act, then failing to do so once in office, suggesting the powers that be are just too strong.

This week, Snowden asked President Obama for an official pardon of charges that he violated the Espionage Act: “That is perhaps why the pardon power exists — for the exceptions, for the things that may seem unlawful in letters on a page but when we look at them morally, when we look at them ethically, when we look at the results, it seems these were necessary things, these were vital things.”

Suddenly, the film’s timeliness set in as D.C. viewers watched Snowden himself Skype into theaters Wednesday in the nationwide event “Snowden Live” featuring Stone and his cast. Speaking from an undisclosed location, presumably exiled in Moscow, Snowden laid out his critics’ common argument before offering a winning rebuttal: “Saying you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say.”

Edward Snowden video conferences (left) with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (right) during "Snowden Live" at AMC Mazza Gallerie in Washington D.C. (WTOP/Jason Fraley)
Ed Snowden video conferences with Joseph Gordon-Levitt during “Snowden Live” at AMC Mazza Gallerie. (WTOP/Jason Fraley)


Click here to win tickets to see “Snowden” at any D.C. area AMC Theater. See where the film ranks among the year’s entire slate of movies in our ongoing Fraley Film Guide.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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