Like so many of Oliver Stone’s films, Snowden is yet another one of Stone’s biopic thrillers which focuses on a controversial American figure who has changed the landscape of American politics in the real world. I feel like there isn’t a word in the English dictionary which will accurately enough justify how watching Snowden feels like (maybe ‘inconsistent’). It is neither bland nor rivetingly complex. It just serves its purpose of dutifully shedding light on a contentious incident which completely transformed the world’s view of privacy in the 21st century. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a remarkable job of inhabiting Edward Snowden as a character and Oliver Stone gives an assured direction in typical fashion behind the camera.
Snowden is mostly based on the book, ‘The Snowden Files’ by Luke Harding which is an account of Edward Snowden’s NSA data leak in 2013 that sparked a fiery firestorm of a debate regarding issues of privacy, mass surveillance and the matter of national security. But before the infamous whistle-blower became a household name, Edward Snowden was just a top contractor working with the NSA and the CIA. It is not long before he discovers clandestine spy programmes developed by the government – solely used for the purpose of tracking communications between its citizens and other countries. Ethics and the questions of morality are immediately brought into the picture as Snowden contemplates about giving up his life for the public to have knowledge about this breach of their personal cyberspace. A national hero, a glorified traitor to his country or a little bit of both? That is for you to decide.
Stone immediately presents Snowden as a character who has multiple layers to himself which I felt was important to establish early on because everything he does in the film is connected right back to what he stands for as a person. Someone who obviously has his own moral code to live by due to the shady work he does. An immovable force in standing by his plethora of political views. His sense of patriotism and righteousness is clearly fleshed out during the scene where he has some back and forth banter about liberalism and conservatism with his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). The conviction, motivation and deliberation which Snowden possessed was concocted in a very convincing manner and one could easily empathize with Snowden when he had the privilege to work with such invasive information; the things he saw through the ongoing programmes and the UAVs – all the closeted intelligence he was consuming was unhealthy to say the least.
His girlfriend acted as a good outlet to showcase how Snowden’s top secret job was able to compromise the relationships in his life. And it is heart wrenching to witness his desire to tell her exactly what is happening in every scene they are in, but is unable to because of the risks involved. The cloud of trauma which has been accumulating is distinctly shown to be taking its toll on his health and mental well-being in the film and it is a great example on how the secrecy of one’s job or in the case of Snowden, the holding back of such ground breaking information which can affect not only his life but millions of others can have all sorts of implications.
When Snowden finally leaks the documents to the media in spite of the repercussions it can have on his life, it is yet again a multifaceted message about national security and anything along those lines. We obviously want to know what is going through Snowden’s mind when he makes the decision of going against his own country and Snowden gifts it to us. It goes beyond flirting with the idea of controversial topics and also explains to us what Snowden’s definition of national security is and at what cost. It answers the important questions through narration and actions and it challenges you with even more questions in return. ‘How do you define loyalty to your country?’ You are forced to reflect on such debateable themes and that was what made it so thrilling and personal.
There were tons of signposts which could have led Stone to turn this simple biopic into an espionage thriller or a Jason Bourne like film which could be over sensationalized. Thankfully, he remained grounded with the entire story and continued to tell it in a mature manner – the way it is supposed to be told.
Everyone in Snowden had a decent performance with their characters; nothing too outstanding and definitely nothing too boring. Despite it’s incredibly thought-provoking nature, there is nothing standout which can catapult Snowden to be greater. It does everything pretty well and Stone’s direction of depicting Snowden’s transformation from an unassuming IT consultant to the world’s most wanted man cannot be any clearer. I highly recommend this to anyone who wishes to learn more about the Snowden saga. Also while you are at it, you might want to check out Citizenfour which is an award-winning documentary film concerning the same scandal.
Directed by: Oliver Stone (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, World Trade Center)
Screenplay by: Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone
Based on: The Snowden Files by Luke Harding and Time of the Octopus
by Anatoly Kucherena
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Nicolas Cage
Running time: 134 minutes