Director Oliver Stone took a risk in making Snowden (2016). Not because of America’s continuing legal vendetta against exiled Edward Snowden but because the definitive film about Snowden was already made in the multi-award winning documentary CitizenFour (2014). However, Stone’s film goes beyond the act of whistle-blowing to explore who Snowden is and why he leaked. To do this, he incorporates the making of the 2014 documentary into his bio-pic thriller and adds a romantic back story to humanise the world’s best know computer geek.
The Snowden plotline consists of known facts and a liberal dose of creative dramatisation. It is focused on the several days during which Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was holed up in a Singapore Hotel with journalists while legal clearances were obtained for media publication of his massive leak of classified NSA intelligence. During this time, there are several flashbacks to different points in Snowden’s career that trace his progression from a rising star in the intelligence industry to his disillusionment about America’s surveillance of enemies and ordinary citizens.
While the Snowden story unfolds, the CitizenFour documentary is happening in the same hotel room, a clever device that adds authenticity. The flashbacks include scenes that could have been lifted from Eye in the Sky (2016) where American missiles zero-in on humans guided by cell phone signals. Surveillance technology has advanced to the point that almost anyone can be watched through common domestic devices, while agencies like the NSA publicly deny the scale of their spying operations. This is the hypocrisy that radicalised Snowden into blowing the whistle.
The clinical facts behind the Snowden story are alarming and their implications are so profound that most people cannot imagine, let alone articulate, what mass surveillance means for the future of democracies around the world. But we are talking cinema not politics, and Snowden tells a great story about an unusual individual. The back-story of his love life softens the narrative without melodrama and provides relief from the film’s density of forensic detail. The two and a quarter hour long film could have been trimmed without harming the narrative but the acting and directing sustains the thriller edge of the story. Whether Stone’s portrait appears too saintly or overly supportive of petitions to pardon Snowden is a matter of judgement. In any case, this is a well-made and engaging film that presents Snowden as a principled romantic and modest hero.
Director: Oliver Stone
Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo