Photo courtesy of Open Road Films
If you’re hoping to learn more about the facts of the case regarding controversial whistleblower Edward Snowden after having seen Laura Poitras’s acclaimed documentary Citizenfour, Oliver Stone’s new film won’t likely give you anything else on which to chew. I’m not saying this is a bad or ineffective movie – in fact, it’s pretty well made and acted and includes a decent amount of suspense, especially considering we know how it turns out. But Stone re-stages scenes almost directly from Poitras’ film, during which she interviews the subject, and the result occasionally gives Snowden a been-there, done-that feel.
Also, Snowden himself has said that in blowing the whistle on his discoveries that the Natural Security Agency (NSA) was spying on its own people was not intended to make the conversation all about himself – a charge that could, perhaps, be more easily leveled at Julian Assange – and yet Stone spends much of the picture doing exactly that, focusing on Snowden’s romance with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), his declining well-being as a result of his discovery and so on.
The film also makes the mistake – in its finale – of portraying Russia as the munificent nation that has sheltered Snowden – a man calling for governmental transparency – when, in fact, that country’s president is himself a former spymaster for the KGB who oversees a quasi-democracy with elements of totalitarianism. However, despite some obvious hero worship during the course of the film, it is accessible to those who either approve or disapprove of Snowden’s actions (full disclosure: I agree with many of his beliefs about government surveillance, but am torn on how he conducted himself).
All of these criticisms aside, Snowden is a well-made political thriller, which should come as no surprise considering that Stone has long been a chronicler of U.S. history from the 1960s to the present. And while Snowden isn’t nearly as effective as JFK or Nixon, it does a pretty solid job of capturing the current mood: an era of terrorism paranoia, arguable governmental overreach, increased mistrust between nations and, especially in 2016, the U.S.’s political unrest.
Joseph Gordon Levitt captures Snowden’s cadences and the supporting cast is very good, especially Rhys Ifans as Snowden’s slippery CIA mentor, Nicolas Cage as a teacher who made a difference in the whistleblower’s education, and Zachary Quinto as Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian journalist who reported on Snowden’s story and was featured in Citizenfour.
Stone’s film may too faithfully rehash scenes from Poitras’s documentary and not divulge much information to which we were not already privy due to Citizenfour as well as the numerous articles written on Snowden, but as a work of cinema it is effective enough. If you are not entirely familiar with Snowden’s story and prefer feature filmmaking to documentaries (although I’d recommend you prioritize Citizenfour over this one), Stone’s movie is a decent starting point for the uninitiated.
Watch the Snowden trailer: