It says a lot about the effect Edward Snowden has had on the world that even amid the wild fervor of the current U.S. presidential election, he remains one of the most controversial figures in American society, more than three years after the incident that made him a household name.
A former government intelligence analyst and contractor who became one of the modern era’s most famous whistleblowers, Snowden is simultaneously a hero, villain, patriot, or traitor depending on who you ask. This makes him the sort of character that isn’t easy to translate to the big screen, and demands a tremendously skilled filmmaker and talented actor in order to do so in a way that’s both dramatic and authentic.
Fortunately, Snowden has both of these things in director Oliver Stone and lead actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the result is an impressive – if occasionally too glossy – film that manages to find the compelling story that lies beneath a sea of raw data and public policy.
Written and directed by Stone, Snowden is based on Russian attorney Anatoly Kucherena’s novel Time of the Octopus, which chronicles his time working with Snowden in Russia, as well as Luke Harding’s novel The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man. The film casts Looper and Inception actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the title character, and covers his life and career leading up to and following his decision to leak restricted files concerning the American government’s surveillance of its citizens.
Snowden is far from a perfect film, but Gordon-Levitt deserves little – if any – blame for the movie’s flaws. The former television actor has come a long way since his days on the small screen, and his portrayal of Snowden may be one of his best performances to date.
Throughout the film, Gordon-Levitt finds the sweet spot between humanizing someone who many people have only seen in photos or on computer monitors and straying into an over-sentimentalized caricature of a familiar (if somewhat distant) figure. Make no mistake: Even with Stone behind the camera, it’s Gordon-Levitt’s performance that makes Snowden fascinating.
Gordon-Levitt’s supporting cast is a mixed bag, with Divergent franchise star Shailene Woodley providing a fine (if somewhat forgettable) portrayal of Snowden’s free-spirited girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, and Nicolas Cage doing the expected amount of scene-chewing as a pioneering CIA engineer condemned to a forgotten classroom.
It’s actor Rhys Ifans who stands out, however, in the role of Snowden’s former mentor at the CIA.
It would be all too easy to make Ifans’ character the villain of the story, and at times – particularly in one memorable scene that has Snowden communicating with Ifans’ character via an oversized video-conference projection – he comes perilously close to slipping into full-on bad guy. Fortunately, Ifans and Stone seem well aware of the nuance his character demands if they want him to remain a believable, real-world figure, and the movie is better for it.
Where Snowden falters is in its efforts to make its title character’s story feel somehow complete.
In its efforts to create a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, Snowden feels like it takes the easy way around some of the more complicated issues involved in its subject’s actions, and occasionally glosses over some of those issues entirely.
It’s clear that Stone is on Snowden’s side, but the film feels light on its exploration of the factors – justified or otherwise – that contributed to government surveillance reaching the levels that compelled Snowden to do what he did. The audience is simply presented with a bad situation that appears to be getting worse, and a reluctant hero who risks everything for the greater good.
For all the nuance that Gordon-Levitt and Ifans channel in their performances, there’s precious little of it to be found in the story, which occasionally feels heavy-handed in the way it hammers home a heroic filter on Snowden and his actions.
Still, Stone succeeds in making a complicated story rooted in philosophical and legal quandaries very digestible – which is no easy feat, given all of the technical jargon it demands.
Although Snowden wraps up too neatly in the end – possibly due to the still-evolving nature of its subject’s story in the real world (he’s still considered a traitor by the U.S. government and forced to live in Russia) – it also manages to seem increasingly relevant in the modern political climate. It leans heavily on its cast in order to push through the complex story it wants to tell, and they prove themselves more than capable of seeing it through to a satisfying conclusion that exists on the screen, if not in the real world.
If you think Snowden is a hero, Stone’s film will certainly validate your beliefs. If you think he’s a traitor, there’s little chance that his story – as it’s presented in Snowden – is going to convince you otherwise. But if you’re in search of a better understanding of Snowden himself, what he did, and why he’s such a controversial figure, Snowden offers all of that, along with some fantastic, memorable performances by its cast.