Snowden arrived in the UK last December after its September US release got mixed reviews. It was inevitably unfavourably compared to Laura Poitras’ real-time documentary Citizenfour, which plays like the most intense paranoid thriller imaginable. The reality is that both films are great in their own right, Snowden is a much more personal film, and the viewer really grows to understand where Edward Snowden came from.
The film’s narrative through line is, of course, Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). It begins in his Hong Kong hotel room with The Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo). Snowden has summoned them to meet him in order to divulge classified information about the NSA’s global surveillance programs.
Through a series of flashbacks, you get to see the Snowden that Citizenfour couldn’t show. Like lots of idealistic, naive kids, he signs up to fight for his country after 9/11. He gets injured in basic training, so due to his extraordinary computer skills he gets hired by the CIA instead, and then eventually becomes a contractor for the NSA. The film also follows his personal journey from being basically a right-wing libertarian (there is an amusing reference to their goddess Ayn Rand) to becoming a left-leaning crusader against global surveillance. This is partly spearheaded by his relationship with his more politically savvy girlfriend, Lindsay Mills.
Although today Oliver Stone is known for his left-wing views, like Snowden he also joined the army during wartime. Stone fought during Vietnam (he would later make a trilogy of films on Vietnam) and was deeply conservative until his wartime service. The film is about Snowden’s political awakening, but it is also about Stone’s own parallel experience.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt hasn’t been this good since his early work in independent films like Brick and Mysterious Skin. He captures the slightly dorky mannerisms of Snowden to a T and gets his voice nailed down perfectly. The casting of the journalists and Laura Poitras are spot on, they all capture their mannerisms and look the part. Shailene Woodley as Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills may be a slightly weak link, but you can get why she helped form the man Snowden is now.
The smaller roles of various employees of the NSA and CIA are richly cast. Clint Eastwood’s son Kyle is a great piece of stunt-casting as Snowden’s higher up at NSA. Rhys Ifans plays Snowden’s CIA supervisor “Corbin O’Brian” whose name is an overt reference to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. He even at one point says the very Orwellian “Secrecy is security and security is victory.” The characters of NSA and CIA employees are composites with their names made up for obvious legal reasons. Nicolas Cage has a blast in an extended cameo as a jaded government hacker who befriends Snowden.
The film is, of course, not without flaws, it has those big dramatic moments scored by swelling quasi-patriotic music, not dissimilar to John Williams’ big but effective score for Stone’s masterpiece JFK. Craig Armstrong did the score; Armstrong also scored one of Stone’s most misguided films, the ridiculously patriotic World Trade Center. This might be why one critic complained that Snowden was “too American” on Twitter, which I found laughable.
The film for the most part is pretty faithful to the true story. Obviously dramatic license has been taken, but Oliver Stone has always said he is a “dramatist” first and a “historian” second. The changes for the most part are used to make the story more dramatic, such as the Rubik’s Cube which Snowden uses to smuggle the data out. Snowden has never revealed how he got the data out, but he suggested the Rubik’s Cube to Stone.
Snowden is easily Stone’s finest work since Nixon, which of course also dealt with surveillance, privacy and the abuse of power. Alexander deserves a second viewing as well, preferably in one of the various longer cuts. Stone gets to indulge his obsessions with Snowden in a really unrestrained way, which is down to the fact that he didn’t get any American money when it came to funding the film. Hollywood studios were probably too scared to fund what could be perceived as an “anti-American film,” which in reality is about as patriotic of a film as you can get.
Sadly, the UK Blu-Ray only contains the film’s theatrical trailer and no further special features. Oliver Stone supplying a commentary track would’ve been a very welcome addition, even better if he did it with Snowden himself.