Oliver Stone is no stranger when it comes to biographical political thrillers having explored presidential stories with JFK, Nixon, and W. His latest film, Snowden, falls into the same genre but takes a more laxed approach in addressing its controversial subject matter. Given how relevant Edward Snowden still is today and how recent these events happened, I can’t help but feel somewhat let down by its message.
To many citizens Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is considered a hero and a patriot, but to the US government he’s a traitor. After years of working on top secret government security projects, Snowden became privy to the fact that the government was able to access nearly any and all electronic data of anyone in the world and that his own work, unbeknown to him, was used in the creation of the technology behind it. Believing it to be a mass invasion of privacy, Snowden becomes a whistleblower at the risk of losing everything in order to give the public the truth.
Snowden switches back and forth between the meeting he had in Hong Kong with journalists and a documentary crew where he handed over the classified NSA documents that revealed the extent to which the government was collecting data and his biography as he rose through the ranks of the CIA, NSA, and government contractors to the point where he had access to the documents. The latter also focuses on his relationship with his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), and the toll his work impacted their relationship.
The problem with the film is that it focuses more on Snowden himself rather and doesn’t fully explore the impact his actions have had on society and what it means. Concerns over privacy and government spying come second to his relationship with Lindsay. They’re the driving factor behind the entire film, but the repercussions have little impact in Oliver Stone’s storytelling.
Furthermore, it’s nothing new. 2014’s documentary Citizenfour, which happens to be the same film being shot by the dramatized documentary crew in Hong Kong, does a much better job at painting a picture of Snowden and his actions. His story is still completely new and ongoing, so a biographical dramatization of these events seems like unnecessary overkill.
On the plus side, Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers a commanding performance as Snowden. He completely immerses himself into the character and keeps you interested in the story despite its flaws. With as much as his story has been in the public eye over the years, it was surprisingly easy to forget about the famous face in front of the camera. You don’t see Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing Edward Snowden. You just see Snowden.
Snowden is exhaustive. It’s a dramatized depiction of events that are far more interesting than the way in which it presents them. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fantastic in the role, but the rest of the film feels like it’s playing it safe when it comes to addressing the real issues of government spying. You’re better off just watching the award-winning Citizenfour.