Oliver Stone’s “Snowden,” a biopic of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who revealed the extent of that agency’s domestic spying operations, is a serious, well-made, and genuinely frightening film.
Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald wrote the movie, based on the books “The Snowden Files” by Luke Harding and “The Time of the Octopus” by Anatoly Kucherena.
Stone met personally with Snowden multiple times in Russia, where he has lived under political asylum during the last three years, while researching the film.
Open Road Films, which last year brought “Spotlight” to the big screen, produced the movie.
“Snowden” is framed by the title character, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, meeting in Hong Kong in 2013 with filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo).
Poitras later presented her interviews with Snowden in the Academy Award-winning documentary “Citizenfour,” and Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson).
The story flashes back to 2004, when Snowden, a self-described “patriot” eager to serve his country after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is training at Ft. Benning.
After he is discharged due to a debilitating leg injury, Snowden applies to the CIA, where his technical aptitude impresses his instructors and paves the way for his advancement in the agency.
Meanwhile, Snowden begins dating Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), whom he meets on a “geek dating” website.
At first blush, the pair seem to be complete opposites: he as a politically conservative programmer, she as a free-spirited liberal photographer.
However, they enjoy each other’s company and a relationship soon blossoms.
This is one of the film’s strongest elements. Snowden and Mills’ relationship is not a tacked-on romantic subplot but an integral part of Snowden’s beginning to question the efficacy and ethics of the intelligence agencies’ operations.
Mills serves as his conscience, a reminder of the people who are affected by the dark deeds of the warrantless spying. This is poignantly illustrated in a scene where the two make love in front of Mills’ laptop.
Snowden, who recently offered a demonstration of the NSA’s spying ability, anxiously regards the computer’s camera.
The film follows Snowden through a successive series of assignments around the globe with the CIA and eventually the NSA, where he grows increasingly disturbed by the spying operations, which can read virtually every email and message sent in the United States, the targeted drone strikes he witnesses, and by the indifference and flippancy of his fellow employees.
The emotional strain of his work and other health issues take a toll on his relationship with Mills.
Eventually, seeing no alternative or hope for self-correction on the part of the agency, Snowden decides to contact the Guardian journalists.
The film makes good use of archival footage, such as then-candidate Barack Obama’s pledges to reform domestic surveillance, which reassure Snowden after his initial exposure to the operations, but ultimately ring false.
The two major party presidential candidates are heard briefly, with Hillary Clinton commenting that Snowden “shouldn’t get to come home without facing the music,” and Donald Trump saying, “There’s still such a thing as execution.”
Since coming to prominence as a director 30 years ago with Platoon, Stone’s resume has been, to say the least, a mixed bag, but “Snowden” is without question one of his finest works. Often criticized as being unsubtle and bombastic, Stone directs his latest film with commendable restraint, allowing the viewer to accompany Snowden on his gradual, but organic and believable evolution from loyal “company man” to whistleblower. This is, at heart, a deeply human story, and Stone has the good sense to let the film be carried by the strength of its performances and the facts of its story.
For instance, what could easily have been an over-the-top, melodramatic sequence, Snowden’s escape from Hong Kong after outing himself as the Guardian’s source, is presented in an understated, claustrophobic style, as Snowden stays with a sympathetic family, then sneaks anonymously out of the city. The look on Gordon-Levitt’s face tells the tale of conflicting emotions. He is certain that he’s done the right thing, but deeply apprehensive about his own future.
Gordon-Levitt and Woodley have excellent chemistry and convincingly portray two people in love coping with the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves thrust into. Additional good work comes from Rhys Ifans as Snowden’s early mentor and Nicolas Cage in a small role as a disaffected CIA employee Snowden meets early in his tenure.
I attended the “sneak preview” screening on Sept. 14, which was followed by a live panel discussion with Stone, Gordon-Levitt and Woodley in a New York studio. Snowden himself also participated, joining the discussion from his home in Moscow via satellite uplink. The discussion was hosted by author and arts critic Matt Zoller Seitz.
In his remarks, Snowden responded to the argument, voiced by several characters in the film, that those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear from domestic surveillance, noting that this argument was first articulated by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.
“Privacy isn’t about having something to hide, it’s about your right to establish your own identity free of outside influence,” Snowden said.
“Saying you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”
Stone likened Snowden to Ron Kovic, the Vietnam War veteran-turned-protestor whom Stone profiled in his earlier film “Born on the Fourth of July.” Stone, who turned 70 the day before “Snowden’s” wide release, has often been lampooned as a crackpot conspiracy theorist. Given the depth of what Edward Snowden revealed, he is more than entitled to feel a sense of vindication, as well as pride in his important, intelligent, and absorbing new film.
Snowden is rated R for brief nudity and language. Area theaters.