Snowden (2016)

  • Time: 134 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama | Thriller
  • Director: Oliver Stone
  • Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Nicolas Cage


Snowden stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and is written and directed by Oliver Stone. The script is based on the books The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man by Luke Harding and Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena.


  • I had one thought going into Oliver Stone’s latest film. The issue isn’t whether Stone is being paranoid. The issue is whether he’s being paranoid enough. Natch.

    So OK, conspiracy, controversy, yesteryear, and a persecution complex to boot. That’s the Stoney way. And with Snowden (my latest review), he gives us his best film since Any Given Sunday.

    Overall, Snowden is heads and tails above Oliver’s box office bomb Alexander, his weak sequel in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and his conventional World Trade Center from a decade ago. It seems like the flick he was born to make. Granted, I don’t know why Snowden’s initial release was delayed (it was suppose to come out Christmas Day circa 2015). As a film, it doesn’t appear as though it needs any additional scenes or reshoots.

    Virtually nonviolent, dialogue driven and containing crisp cinematography, Snowden can be classified rather as violence of the mind, an absorbing multilayered drama, a frills-free thriller. No one feels safe in this movie and you know what, no one should. Oh and I almost forgot, there’s a sequence where a drone flies above troupers heads (at a party) and then crashes to the ground. Man those things give me the creeps.

    Anyway, this is a return to form for the ripe, 70-year-old filmmaker. In truth, it might not be as flashy as some of his best work from the 1990’s. Nevertheless, he brings some of his old tricks back to the table anyway. With Snowden, there is some indulgence with visuals in the form of freeze frames, archive footage, and even slight animation. Stone as expected, also gives us a script in Snowden that seems to wanna speculate on facts even though everything is supposedly based on a true story (this isn’t necessarily a bad thing). Finally, Stone revels in casting well known actors/actresses that fade in and out of the proceedings. Snowden has brief appearances by Scott Eastwood, Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, Nicolas Cage, Timothy Olyphant, and Rhys Ifans. Again, this isn’t a negative connotation towards Oliver Stone. It’s just you know, predicted.

    Resembling a neutered version of Stone’s own masterful JFK and a shortened version of 2006’s The Good Shepard, Snowden chronicles the main character of real-life, CIA whistleblower Edward Joseph Snowden (played brilliantly by consummate chameleon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Much of the film is told in flashbacks from 2004 to present day in 2013. Ed Snowden journeys from being a discharged Special Forces candidate to a “security specialist” to working for the Central Intelligence Agency to being a lead technologist at NASA. The movie also gives insight into Edward’s long-standing relationship with his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).

    Bottom line: Oliver Stone’s work always seems to be overfilled with ideas. He’s the mad dog filmmaker, the guy who conjectures, the guy whose storytelling sensibilities go a little off-kilter. Snowden is an example of this but like most of his best vehicles, it brims with energy, fire, and eerie secrecy. My nephew and movie critic colleague gave it four stars. I thought it dragged a bit at 138 minutes but still stuck with me long after the closing credits came up. My overall rating: 3 and a half stars.

    Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

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  • (RATING: ☆☆☆ out of 5 )


    IN BRIEF: A slightly disappointing character study that suffers from conventional storytelling.

    GRADE: C+

    SYNOPSIS: The life of Edward Snowden.

    JIM’S REVIEW: Oliver Stone has always been an audacious and exciting filmmaker. He uses his anger about certain causes as his inspiration. Even when his narrative becomes sanctimonious and convoluted, his visual flair and kinetic style compensates for his grandstanding on political issues. His films carry his unique vision along with his political message that energizes his craft. His excesses hide a multitude of flaws in his storytelling. Such is the case with his latest venture, Snowden.

    The subject is controversial from the start. Villain or hero? Spy or whistleblower? Egotist or crusader? Traitor or patriot? Whatever your viewpoint, be it liberal or conservative, his story remains a good mystery to tell. Of course, Mr. Stone takes the latter road to travel, painting this young computer geek as a saintly moral person caught between governmental conspiracies and cover-ups. Snowden follows the prototype of many of Stone’s antiheroes from his other films. a common man riling up against the establishment. Big Brother conspiracy theories and paranoia abound.

    He structures the film as a flashback, from 2013 with Laura Poitras’ documentary, Citizenfour, as the starting point (a good plot device) before going back to 2004 with Edward Snowden as a ill-equipped recruit with an overabundance of patriotic vigor who loves America and believes wholeheartedly in its conservative values. Then a brief stint with the CIA and on to a productive life as a National Security Agency lackey, always with that same pro-American sentiment. This attitude will, of course, change as he becomes corrupted by the system.

    The problem with this film is a preachy script that simplified its complex subject to the point of tedium. The film bores rather than excites. The film’s ongoing motif, that Big-Brother-is-watching theme, is completely overstated, so evident in a scene of 1984 hysteria involving a large oversized head spouting hateful rhetoric to a small insignificant Snowden figure.

    For the most part, Mr. Stone’s vision is straightforward, making his title character a candidate for canonization from the onset rather than show any of Snowden’s human flaws. His Snowden is a shy introverted idealist who becomes jaded with the military machine and with the governmental agencies as his employer. The screenplay, by the director and Kieran Fitzgerald, plays it too safe and politicizes its already political character as a mere pawn. It is in need of some major re-writing.

    One of the director’s initial missteps is trying to span nearly ten years of Snowden’s life instead of focusing on his more interesting later years prior to his criminal act, or his whistle-blowing, depending one your own viewpoint. It comes off as a Readers’ Digest abridged version. Granted, Mr. Stone honestly acknowledges that this film is a dramatization, even if it is based on facts, but the drama is seriously missing, placing the solemn seriousness front and center.

    The other gaffe is putting the real Edward Snowden in the film’s conclusion, creating a jarring reaction that mixes fiction and reality with an aftertaste that smacks of pure propaganda. Throughout the film, Mr. Stone lays all of the blame on the American government’s illegal surveillance tactics upon its citizens and none of the irresponsibility with Snowden’s covert espionage actions and its possible repercussions to its agents. This send the film into helter-skelter mode, especially hearing the real Snowden expounding scripted words in his own defense.

    Except for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is quite compelling as Snowden, and a fine performance by an unrecognizable Rhys Ifans, all the other roles are sketchy and not well developed. Especially lacking any depth is the romantic relationship with Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsey Mills, which should be the central emotional connection with the moviegoing audience. Shailene Woodley tries to add some nuance to her under-written character, but again the screenplay lets her and the other actors down.

    Snowden is a well-crafted film, nicely filmed by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. The film is a visual treat. Oliver Stone cannot make anything that looks remotely inferior. He is a master showman, always was and always will be. But his wobbly narrative, of which he is partially to blame, cannot keep up with his strong images. Sadly, Snowden becomes the ultimate snow job.

    NOTE: Don’t miss the end credits. They are the most focused and powerful part of the film with Peter Gabriel’s lovely original song, The Veil, scored with wonderful archival footage and graphics concisely edited to maximum effect.

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  • In perhaps the film’s most powerful scene Snowden has a phone chat with his old boss/mentor, who appears on a wall-size screen.
    The boss’s face dwarfs all of Snowden. That is, the state power overwhelms even the most brilliant individual. The image tacitly visualizes Orwell’s “Big Brother is Watching You.”
    Snowden stands between us and that face of corrupt power, in that shot as he does in the film’s overall warning about a federal government violating all principles and laws to spy unrestrained on all its citizens.
    The face reveals he knows about Snowden’s furtive conversations with his colleagues and even his unspoken private concerns, not just about the legality of the program but about his girlfriend Lindsey’s fidelity. So complete is the government’s invasion of the lovers’ life that the face can assure Snowden that Lindsey hasn’t betrayed him. its intended reassurance about her dissolves before the chilling revelation of the extent of the government’s spying.
    A program designed to track possible terrorists has turned into an uncontrolled invasion of even its’ most trustworthy citizens’ most private lives. The face ends the chat with a friendly line now turned sinister: “I’ll be seeing you.”
    A few curt lines carry the film’s gist. “Terrorism is just an excuse.” Americans want security more than freedom. The full-screen images of computer programming represent a world that has lost humanity and traditional logic, that prefers the abstractions of logarithms and total power over its citizens over democracy.
    Of course the current election figures in too. Trump is cited twice but looms implicitly in the threat of an elected tyrant who would exploit the total surveillance to consolidate his personal power. Hillary is heard twice condemning Snowden’s crime.
    That he committed a crime is undeniable. Where Obama’s government shows its unfortunate (lack of) character is in refusing to consider his action as a whistle-blowing — that is, a crime that serves the public good — and insists on charging him with treason, which precludes an open, fair trial.
    For once Oliver Stone’s material is so compelling he doesn’t have to juice it up with inventions and distortions. If he invented the Rubrik Cube ploy it’s still an excellent metaphor for the gaming going on in the intelligence world — like the spying, a small game opens out into a mammoth one — and Snowden’s particular genius.
    Stone clearly intends to valourize Snowden. What he deliberately frames out of his discussion is his possible endangering of individual agents’ and citizens’ lives by his sweeping revelations.

  • The tale of Edward Snowden – whistleblower, patriot, traitor, all or none of the above – would seem in Oliver Stone’s conspiratorial, left-wing wheelhouse. Yet Snowden seems less an Oliver Stone film than a facsimile of one, tranquilising instead of galvanising, focused yet shapeless, with a passionate anger that diffuses rather than congeals.

    The film begins in Hong Kong in 2013 as Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sequesters himself in a hotel room with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). The purpose of the meeting is for Snowden to present them with the concrete evidence of the American government’s massive surveillance of its citizens, but it also serves as a framing device for the extended flashbacks that depict Snowden’s trajectory from conservative brainiac to concerned crusader.

    “There are other ways to serve your country,” he is told when an injury derails him from being in the United States Army Reserve. Inspired to join as a result of 9/11, Snowden instead funnels his patriotism into working for the CIA, where his skills in creating covert communications systems impresses his soon-to-be mentor Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). Snowden may not be able to fight on the battlefield, but he is the perfect soldier for a war that takes place in cyberspace. His rise is swift but so is his growing unease with the extent of the government’s infringement on its citizens’ freedoms. The powers-that-be may proclaim that these Orwellian methods are for the country’s protection against potential terrorist threats, but Snowden comes to realise that it may be more about maintaining and enhancing the country’s supremacy.

    In the midst of all this, Stone drops in Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), a photographer whom Snowden meets on an online dating site and whose liberal political views often clash with his own. Their romance, mostly imperiled by his paranoia and secrecy, can border on the cringeworthy. “Tastes like liberal,” he notes after their first kiss. Their sex scene – with Snowden anxious that their lovemaking is being observed via a dormant laptop camera – quicksands into the ludicrous but at least Stone is letting his freak flag fly.

    The film could have used more of that unhinged unpredictability. This is the most straightforward Stone has been; he seems intent on sticking with the facts of Snowden’s story to the detriment of the narrative. Stone’s films have always had a prismatic elasticity – a willingness to warp fact and fiction, supposition and reality – that works in communion with his visual razzle-dazzle. Snowden is watchable, but one is always looking at the periphery for something more riveting around the corner. For example, would Snowden have been engrossing had Stone taken an All the President’s Men approach to his protagonist? More than likely. Gordon-Levitt’s excellent performance aside, the least interesting element of Snowden is Snowden himself.

    As per usual, Stone underserves much of his large cast of talented actors. Leo and Wilkinson mostly disappear into the scenery; Quinto is adrift and goes a bit over-the-top to compensate; Ifans does well as the dour O’Brian, but the character is a barely a sketch. Woodley, freed from Divergent duties, rouses herself from her usual somnambulance to deliver a warm and vibrant portrayal before being relegated to the usual girlfriend tropes of being alternately supportive and harping. Nicolas Cage – appearing as a sort of gatekeeper to equipment like the Enigma machine, which seems embryonic in comparison to the computers in use today – makes us both miss him and more appreciative of his absence.

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  • Oliver Stone has made a number of biographical dramas over the years, bringing us films such as The Doors, Nixon and W., as well as dramas based on events in American history such as JFK and World Trade Centre. With Snowden, Stone tells the story of one of the biggest National Security leaks in American history.

    Stone’s film chronicles the life of Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), from when he joined the CIA in 2004 up until 2013, when he leaked classified information regarding the illegal surveillance of American citizens to journalists working for The Guardian newspaper.

    Snowden struggles with the morality of techniques he’s asked to deploy while working for both the CIA and NSA, while also struggling to juggle those pressures with maintaining a stable relationship with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).

    Snowden is by no means a bad film but I just couldn’t help but feel that it should have been better. This is a film about one of the most important government leaks of all time but the film almost feels as if it’s trying to play it all down.

    I think it’s the pacing and the similarity between a lot of the scenes in the film that make it drag a little when it would have worked so much better as a fast-paced drama filled with urgency. The film works best when we see Snowden and the three journalists holed-up inside a Hong Kong hotel room discussing how they can get the story out before they’re found by the American government, but we don’t get enough of that.

    Coming to the performances, Snowden possesses a very good lead in Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He’s one of my favourite actors and it’s so good to see him to continue to work with some of the biggest directors. Shailene Woodley heads the supporting cast as Snowden’s love interest Lindsay and she does a fine job but my favourite supporting cast member was Zachary Quinto as Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists Snowden meets with, which is probably why I wanted there to be more scenes in that hotel room.

    One of the worst decisions made by Oliver Stone was to have Edward Snowden himself appear in the film right at the very end. Sure, have photos and clips of him during the end credits but when Gordon-Levitt has played the man for 99% of the film, it just took me out of the film a fair bit. It didn’t really fit for me.

    Snowden rather feels like a bit of a missed opportunity when I think about it. It just felt all too Hollywood.

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