“Recommending this film is an easy thing to do”

by Steve Pulaski

National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden fits so comfortably in writer/director Oliver Stone’s storied filmography that it’s almost a match made in Heaven. Snowden exemplifies the very same characteristics of Ron Kovic, the Vietnam vet Stone profiled in his famous Born on the Fourth of July, in that he’s a young, purebread, all-American boy, in love with his country and its fundamental principles until he finds out how morally bankrupt and despicable they are.

Snowden was so in love with his country he tried to join the Special Forces, but a devastating leg injury prompted an immediate discharge. A high school dropout with little money and experience, he somehow manifested his way into applying for a job at the CIA, craving the experience to be back on the frontlines of the “War on Terror” during the post-9/11, Iraq War days of the Bush era. Despite this, his incredible, autodidact computer skills landed him the gig for the NSA, where he saw how the agency collected and stored massive amounts of data on every U.S. citizen. He quickly discovered enormous servers housing information, accessible by only a select few as if it were a Google-search for all information collected in an non-consensual manner.

The rest is basically history. Snowden became disgusted and truly troubled by the massive amounts of data collected on innocent U.S. citizens, so much so that he completely rejected his cushy life in the States and put himself and many others in danger by leaking hundreds of confidential documents related to the NSA’s private data-storage. He sought asylum in Russia, where he remains today, and practically forced the Obama administration to seriously consult and amend their methods of how they’d go about tracing the phone-calls and text messages of its population – for the most part.

Directed by
Oliver Stone
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo
Release Date
16 September 2016
Steve’s Grade: B+

Embodying Snowden in his eponymous film is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a wonderful character actor with a talent for sinking into roles of various magnitudes. Whether they are roles that he crafts himself or those based on real figures, you can almost always expect a tremendous performance from him, and once again, Snowden is another strong showcase for him. Right down to the deeper voice, occasionally hazy, dazed demeanor, and general likability, Gordon-Levitt nails Snowden and his quirks, effectively working as a commanding dramatic presence and an infrequently light-hearted, comedic one as well.

Shailene Woodley should also not be overlooked in her role as Snowden’s longtime girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, who is often at the mercy of her boyfriend’s reclusive nature and demanding job. She’s as supportive as she can be, but doesn’t realize the wealth of knowledge and secrets he houses, essentially seeing everything bad and detrimental about the country that he wanted to believe was morally correct. His rapid disillusionment with his homeland isn’t as obviously portrayed as it was for Kovic, or even Bradley Cooper’s tormented Chris Kyle inĀ American Sniper, but it’s evident enough to where we see it slowly eat at Snowden throughout the course of the film.

Snowden plays like a great espionage thriller, and what a great compliment toEye in the Sky, a film that came out earlier this year to seldom buzz that focused on the politics and ethics behind drone warfare. While the themes of public surveillance are not mutually exclusive to both works, Eye in the Sky andSnowden show that the contemporary war film is one of clicking keys, technological complexities, binary code, and a great deal of invisible threats that make it that much harder to track down and pinpoint. Paraphrasing one of Snowden’s advisors, who says it best in the film – a war over sand and oil will end soon, a cyber-war we may never even see coming.

Stone directs Snowden with his typical love for suspense and gray areas; even if we, the audience, aren’t always incredibly in-tune with the specifics of a situation, Stone makes the ride that much more tense by relating it to how such events have an effect on us whether we realize it or not. It’s such a tricky dance to evoke empathy in the process of having characters spew monologues of techno-jargon, but he manages to make it compelling and new, as if he’s continuing to push the envelope in defining and showcasing what exactly modern warfare and espionage entails.

Intimate moments of Snowden and a group of Guardian journalists who would eventually break the story about the extensive NSA records laying-low in a cluttered, dimly lit hotel-room, sweating tirelessly over the leaking process is what punctuates the film’s more fast-paced sequences where the risks are high and the outcomes uncertain. Stone achieve a rare, delicate balance here, in addition to using A-list acting weapons like Timothy Olyphant and Nicolas Cage in equally gripping roles of snakery and corruption that come with years of experience.

Recommending this film is an easy thing to do, but trying to precisely label a genre for it is no easy feat. For some, it’s another run-of-the-mill thriller with political undertones. For others, it’s a blatant horror story. You should find out and be the judge yourself.