When you make a phone call, send a text message, or enter a search into Google, have you ever considered where those bits and bytes actually go? Do you think once they reach their destination, they disperse into nothing, as though they never existed? “Snowden” will make you think twice.
“Snowden” tells the true story of Edward Snowden, the American computer programmer who blew the whistle on the National Security Agency (NSA)’s covert collecting of telephone records. Maybe you heard the news in 2013, when The Guardian broke the story, which Snowden leaked to journalists in a Hong Kong hotel room. I remember perking up when I heard that a secret U.S. court order required Verizon to hand over all of its call data.
“Snowden” was written and directed by Oliver Stone, the grand provocateur of cinema. With films like “Platoon,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” and “JFK,” Stone is no stranger to controversial material. But whether you find his movies thought-provoking, or think he’s merely a self-important rabble-rouser, Stone’s filmography suggests he’s not just critical of his country, he also cares about it.
Working off “The Snowden Files,” a nonfiction book written by Luke Harding, Stone made a movie that’s less confrontational and incendiary than he’s known for producing, but that’s no less mentally stimulating than his best work.
Part of the credit goes to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose name I always have to Google, and who all but disappears into the role of Snowden.Having never met Snowden or watched any videos of him, I don’t know how accurate Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal is, but his performance of the brilliant and socially awkward man is beautifully nuanced. He also makes Snowden sympathetic and likeable.
Gordon-Levitt’s performance is more than clever pantomime, though; it’s an essential narrative device. Stone didn’t spell everything out in the writing, but relied on Gordon-Levitt narrative device. Stone didn’t spell everything out in the writing, but instead relied on Gordon-Levitt to communicate important story beats through his reactions to the events taking place around him. When Snowden learns that U.S. intelligence can turn on remote laptop cameras and peer into private lives, Gordon-Levitt’s response – one of quiet revulsion and horror as Stone lingers on the image of a Muslim woman on the other side of the world slipping out of her Burka – sells the scene.
That’s not to say Stone didn’t put in a hard day’s work on “Snowden.” For starters, he wrote a highly coherent script. Espionage films tend to lose me, but I never felt lost watching “Snowden.” It also has great dialogue that underscores the themes of the movie. In a scene passionately performed by Gordon-Levitt, Snowden says the free and open expression of ideas was one of the principles on which this country was founded, and if we’re going to fight to protect anything, why don’t we protect that? That hit me in the center of my chest.
Once Stone took his pages and stepped behind the camera, he masterfully captured what he needed out of each scene. In one of my favorite bits, Snowden’s former boss at the CIA looms over the young man on a wall-sized video screen as he calmly but menacingly lets him know he’s being watched. Stone has been criticized for having a showy visual style, but I believe he demonstrates great skill with the imagery in “Snowden.”
More than anything, “Snowden” made me think. I was astounded by the scope and complexity of the global intelligence community, challenged to question whether what’s being done without our knowledge is OK because it allegedly safeguards us from harm, and walked away stunned by the massive resources our country is pouring into cyber-intelligence and security.
Unfortunately, Stone was so intent on encouraging his viewers to think that he forgot to entertain them. “Snowden” is everything I’ve said, but it has only a faint pulse. Scenes that should be tense feel low key, and the film drags in places. “Snowden” didn’t need action, but some tension near the end would have been nice. Perhaps Stone, who’s often been accused of needlessly shifting his ideas into overdrive, wanted to keep his viewers grounded. “I’m playing this straight because it’s serious,” he seems to be saying.
I’m speculating, but I’m also still thinking about “Snowden” two days after seeing it. It’s an important and timely film, and I hope it sparks more conversation about what we’re willing to give up in the interest of security, and what that sacrifice would mean.
Rated R for language and some sexuality and nudity