Like most Americans, I’ve heard the name Edward Snowden. I even had an inkling of who he was – a whistleblower from the CIA, or NSA, or some such secret government agency. He revealed secrets about something and got in trouble and had to flee the country. That’s about it for me though having missed getting around to seeing the well received documentary Citizen Four last year, and I suspect the same for most of your average citizens, as well informed as we are. Well, this is the story of a young man who decides that he can’t just do nothing while he sees power abused every day, even if it means being labeled a traitor and facing a ruined life in exile.
Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants nothing more than to serve his country. When he’s physically unable to do that in the military, he turns his considerable mental skills to the intelligence agency – the technology side of things specifically. The more he learns about what goes on behind those closed doors, and the more he participates in government sanctioned activities however, the more he becomes convinced that there is something seriously wrong with the way our government engages in digital espionage. Ultimately that leads him, as we all know, to betray his government in the name of the citizens of America, and the world. Shailene Woodley portrays his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills.
To say that this is a complicated story is to put it mildly. Not only is the subject matter deeply technical, the opinions surrounding it are certainly not black and white. I think by this point many, or even most, people don’t doubt Snowden’s intentions, but whether his actions were appropriate or not, or even forgivable, is still up for debate. This film seeks to simplify both aspects as much as might be possible. Director Oliver Stone doesn’t tell a story about an event, rather he delves into the person who is Ed Snowden. This is his story and really know one else’s. A character drama first, it shows the inevitability of the eventual outcome from the perspective of Snowden as he becomes increasingly uncomfortable with his life, using his relationship with Lindsay as both an effective vehicle and mirror for this.
Obviously this is the version of the story that Snowden wants to share – he worked closely with Stone on it during multiple visits from the director in his sanctuary in Russia. So to say that it definitively answers the questions of right and wrong would be naive since there is always another perspective, but it is impossible to come away from the film without at least an understanding of things from his perspective. In that sense it is incredibly effective. It’s mentioned that Stone becomes consumed by his projects and it is obvious that is contagious as JGL sinks deeper into this role than any I’ve seen him in as of yet (including that time he became a young Bruce Willis). Even though he doesn’t bear much more than a passing resemblance to the real person, I would swear he actually became Snowden (at least this movie version of him).
One thing this film should be loudly applauded for is the realistic portrayal of technology. In an effort to make typing on a computer not seem boring, Hollywood has a habit of dressing things up to the point of absurdity. This is one the only films that comes to mind that makes computer programming not only interesting, but realistically portrayed (feel free to call me out on that if you think otherwise). Stone relies not on the cyber warfare to make things interesting, but the cause and effect it has on the people on both sides of the screen.
If I were to find one major flaw with this film it’s that while it does a good job of showing what the problem with our government’s treatment of privacy is, it rarely makes a case for why it is something to be concerned about. “I don’t have anything to hide so I have nothing to fear,” is the common argument by people unconcerned with whether others are peaking into their lives or not. In an interview after the screening, Snowden makes the “why” case far more effectively in a few succinct sentences than the movie does in it’s entire 139 minutes. Of course Snowden, who comes off as extremely articulate and personable, has had years to ponder that question because if he doesn’t have a good answer to that, well…
For those who want answers to who exactly is Edward Snowden, what did he do, and why, this is an engaging and easy to understand film that answers all that and more. Without being overtly fear-mongering it will certainly make you think twice about your privacy and our government, and maybe even wonder if some of those conspiracy theorists are right.
Mrs. Hamster did not screen this film
Brother Hamster did not screen this film
My rating: Four out of five hats
Snowden leaks into 2,443 theaters, September 16