Arts & CultureFilm & TV

Review: Oliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’ a noble, if flawed, dramatization

It’s a tall order to squeeze the story of Edward Snowden’s life into a feature-length film. In Snowden, the new film from director Oliver Stone, this is sorely obvious.

At 138 minutes, Snowden follows the title character from 2004, when he broke both his legs in army training, to 2013 when he became the most famous unemployed person on the planet. It’s a tautly paced thriller with admirable intentions, but a narrative that’s often ham-fisted, in true Stone fashion.

The movie’s priorities are poorly tuned. The NSA surveillance programs, which should arguably be the epicenter of the film’s drama, are only fleetingly referenced and play second chair to the romantic relationship between Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). Essentially, there’s more focus put on Mills’ pole-dancing classes and Snowden’s sex life than on how the nefarious, indiscriminate surveillance operates.

The ensemble cast is slightly distracting, although it is enjoyable to see Timothy Olyphant as a shark-grinned CIA operative, Ben Schnetzer as a gum-smacking programmer who shows Snowden the ropes of surveillance reach (“Facebook’s my biiitch,” he gloats); and Nicholas Cage as a disillusioned NSA employee.

Gordon-Levitt fits inside Snowden’s skin comfortably and embodies the man with a demure sensibility and hard baritone voice. Mills, on the other hand, is a cardboard character whose development is null as she idly follows Snowden from Baltimore to Japan to Hawaii. Zachary Quinto is wasted as Glenn Greenwald, whose reactions are polarized scene-to-scene between professional and composed, or bitchy indignation. Outside of resemblance (and maybe sexuality), Quinto’s casting is superfluous. For that matter, both Greenwald and Laura Poitras (played by Melissa Leo) feel like ancillary characters in the overall scheme, who are never employed to any meaningful degree and are only used for bolstering the Snowden saga.

Director Oliver Stone has had an anxious predilection for releasing the story before it ends up in any history textbook (World Trade Center came out in 2006; Josh Brolin was playing George W. Bush in W. in 2008 while the title character was still in office). Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, the screenwriters behind Snowden, certainly did their research and nothing is too far-fetched.

But still, Snowden falls prey to something Snowden predicted during one of his first conversations with Greenwald in Poitras’ phenomenal documentary Citizenfour: “I feel the modern media has a big focus on personalities. I’m a little concerned the more we focus on that, the more they’re gonna use that as a distraction,” he told Greenwald. “I don’t necessarily want that to happen, which is why I’ve consistently said, you know, ‘I’m not the story here.’”

The clichéd, reductive hero-or-traitor debate does not apply to Stone, who has clearly made a fawning salute of reverence to the programmer here, rather than the negative implications that come with spilling classified government beans. Perhaps this is because Stone felt an obligation as a filmmaker — not to offer a nuanced, ambiguous tale, but to share a heroic story of triumph against a recklessly omnipotent authority. Days before the release, the real Snowden (who’s currently living in Moscow in asylum) requested a presidential pardon in the waning days of President Obama’s term.

Snowden is thorough, but it neglects key terrain: Greenwald’s partner David Miranda was detained for nine hours at the Hearthrow airport; Mills was deliberately left ignorant of Snowden’s plans before he flew to Hong Kong; and Snowden’s home street was crawling with construction trucks a few days after the leak.

Still, the paranoia in Snowden is palpable. Watching Mills absentmindedly pick away at the Band-Aid that covers her laptop’s camera makes you wince. It’s enough to convince anyone to slap a piece of tape on their own laptop camera.

Watch the trailer for Snowden below.


Emerson Malone

Emerson Malone

Podcast producer with The Daily Emerald and student research fellow with the UO-UNESCO Crossings Institute.