No one expects a movie about Edward Snowden not to be controversial. Both in terms of subject matter and approach. And so it is here. The film takes on one of the most divisive (politicians aside) issues to have occupied America in recent memory and examines it in depth.
Everyone knows about Edward Snowden, a government employee with top secret access who stole computer files from a facility in Hawaii. He copied and leaked classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013 without authorization. His leaks revealed numerous global surveillance programs, many run by the NSA and the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance with the cooperation of telecommunication companies and European governments. He came to international attention after stories based on the material appeared in The Guardian and The Washington Post. Snowden has been variously called a hero, a traitor, and a patriot. His leaks have fuelled debates on mass surveillance, government secrecy, and the balance between national security and information privacy.
The film opens with Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meeting journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) in Hong Kong. It is there he begins to tell his story and explain what he has taken and why. We see Snowden in flashback as a small but courageous Army recruit trying to make it as a Ranger. His weak leg bones wouldn’t hold up and he was eventually discharged. He then signed up to work for the CIA and was posted to Europe, not only as an analyst but briefly as a field agent. That wasn’t for him.
In the middle of his career, Snowden meets his future girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). The movie’s dream girl is tasked with rescuing the principled Snowden from his at times complicated mindset, she seduces him outside the White House as they stroll past an Iraq war protest. A significant portion of the film involves his relationship with Lindsay Mills. It is surprising to see that the makers of the film spent so much time on this romance. I suspect that they wanted to add some flavour and some human interest to what could otherwise be seen as a cold and calculating story. The focus on the relationship certainly humanizes Edward Snowden, but it doesn’t do the same for her; she is hardly depicted as a person at all – her only quality is her endless patience and capacity for suffering her secretive, nervous boyfriend. The most interesting part of this entire story from a human perspective might be the fact that after everything, she left her family to live with Edward in Russia. In Snowden, that detail is dealt with too briefly. Dramatizing that and injecting a bit more drama into the entire film could really have made this into something that people would connect with on an emotional and intellectual level. But for me, it is the cold and calculating portion of the film that is the most interesting due to the way it sheds light on the politically controversial subject it addresses. As Snowden rises through the ranks of the CIA and gets access to more and more information, he discovers that the U. S. government is spying more on its own citizens than on its enemies. This is all highly interesting, very scary and evidently true.
The film is flush with wonderful actors. Rhys Ifans plays Corbin O’Brian, Snowden’s mentor, alongside Nicolas Cage as Hank Forrester. Joely Richardson is Janine Gibson, editor of The Guardian, and Timothy Olyphant is a CIA operative in Geneva and Snowden’s boss at the time. Whatever your position is on Snowden, traitor or hero or something in between, the film is entertaining and leaves no doubt of Stone’s position.
To my mind, Snowden carries very little hint of danger or thrill. This is a movie about mass government spying you could take your grandmother to and should be regarded as a biography or documentary rather than as a secret agent movie. And there’s value in that sort of movie. The film attempts to convey complex ideas to its spectators, and does so in a clear, rational way without making use of traditional action scenes which would attract a mass audience to the theaters. If that makes its audiences think about these issues seriously before making their own uninformed judgment, that’s a good thing.