Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Edward Snowden in Oliver Stone’s biographical thriller about the former CIA employee and NSA contractor who in June 2013 leaked top-secret documents revealing the existence of covert, unfiltered government mass surveillance programs to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. While Stone’s film adds nothing new to the conversation about the whistleblower it does have the power to reach audiences who are still only vaguely aware of who exactly Snowden is and what the documents he risked his personal freedom to expose actually contained. Even for those who have seen Laura Poitras’ Academy Award winning documentary Citizenfour and are relatively well-informed on the subject, Snowden has something to offer. The highly technical intricate workings of programs like XKeyscore and PRISM are difficult for the average person to conceptualize, let alone understand, and Snowden does a masterful job of presenting this material in a way that is both entertaining and broadly accessible for viewers.
The film opens on a 29-year old Snowden’s first meeting with Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) at a sleekly futuristic, upscale Hong Kong hotel in June 2013. As soon as they are safely ensconced in Snowden’s room Greenwald launches a barrage of questions at the young infrastructure analyst. Poitras gently interjects, suggesting they start with something simpler, like his name, and Snowden visibly relaxes and begins to talk. Stone then flashes back to 2004, when Snowden was undergoing military training and hoping to join the US Special Forces. After suffering a severe injury that renders him physically unfit to serve, Snowden is discharged from the Army Reserve and decides to apply to join the CIA. He is accepted, despite lacking a formal tertiary education, and quickly despatched to a secret training facility for the agency’s technology specialists.
Snowden quickly distinguishes himself as a special brand of tech genius, attracting the attention of senior intelligence operative Corbin O’Brian (played with a slippery sort of menace by Rhys Ifans) and sidelined cryptanalysis and computer expert Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage). Inspired by real life NSA whistleblower William Binney, Forrester attempts to warn Snowden about the unpleasant realities of intelligence work, but the patriotic younger man is eager to get into the field and serve his country. He soon gets the chance when the agency assigns him to do cybersecurity work in Geneva. Joining Snowden in the Swiss capital is his new girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). A free-spirited artistic type with a liberal, progressive worldview, Mills is initially much more comfortable questioning authority than the staunchly conservative Snowden.
It’s during this posting that Snowden is first exposed to some of the US government’s disturbing intelligence-gathering tactics. After a young NSA analyst played by Ben Schnetzer shows him a program that makes it possible to observe people via the cameras in their personal devices, Snowden begins to phobically avoid being photographed and filmed. Things get so bad that Snowden abruptly resigns from the CIA and returns to the States, but it’s not long before he is lured back to intelligence work, in part because he believes recently elected President Barack Obama’s campaign promises about protecting the civil liberties and privacy rights of American citizens. His uneasiness over the legality and morality of the work he is involved in continues to grow over the next few years, eventually reaching a tipping point when Snowden learns that the NSA collects more data from American citizens than it does from Russian citizens.
Snowden is an uncharacteristically sedate piece of filmmaking for Stone, who avoids his usual stylistic flourishes and formal experimentation for something cooler, simpler and more cerebral here. Stone and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle do craft some truly dazzling digital sequences that viscerally convey the horrifying magnitude of the global surveillance network and help you understand what Snowden means when he talks about a system whose reach is unlimited and virtually inescapable. Joseph Gordon-Levitt manages to look and sound eerily like the real life figure he is portraying, and his measured, thoughtful performance anchors the film. Melissa Leo imbues her character a wonderful combination of warmth, empathy and professionalism and Tom Wilkinson and Nicolas Cage also do good work in their supporting roles.
Rather than making your blood boil, Snowden infects you with feeling of paranoia that lingers long after you leave the cinema. The movie provokes reflection instead of outrage, and invites viewers to ask themselves difficult, potentially scary questions about their government’s willingness to violate their rights and their own powerlessness to prevent it.