On any given day, we interact with our phones and computers a lot. That sentence is also an understatement of the technological reality we live in. Where we go, our phones go. A truth that, after Edward Snowden’s testimony about the NSA’s spying, makes me side-eye my laptop camera. On the heels of the very, very well-made 2014 documentary, “Citizenfour,” comes Oliver Stone’s similar “Snowden.” It’s almost as though the latter is an extension of the former, only Stone builds up the thrill by going further back in Snowden’s story and getting a bit more personal with its title character while skimming through more important information.
Stone’s thrilling dramatization of Edward Snowden’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) journey from NSA employee to whistle-blower begins in a Hong Kong hotel room in 2013, right after Snowden has contacted and brought together acclaimed documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). It’s in this meeting that Snowden reveals what the NSA has been doing–spying on U.S. citizens and various world governments for the country’s “economic and social gain.” And all of this is being done without their permission and outside of the law.
Told in a non-linear fashion, “Snowden” articulates that paranoia was born and bred within him from the moment he began working with the CIA. After being discharged from the military because of an aggravated injury to both legs, Snowden, sans degree, applies and is recruited by the CIA and then the NSA. His programs, with the ability to create technology that allows both agencies to go beyond their reach, and the way whistle-blowers have historically been charged for espionage all accumulate over time, causing him to eventually take action and bring this secret knowledge to the public.
One thing director and co-writer Oliver Stone is good at is ramping up the thrills. He certainly knows how to achieve the ultimate tension within the narrative, instilling a sense of fear and the feeling of needing to constantly look over your shoulder. “Snowden,” in many ways, is the culmination of a technological age that is far too easily tapped into. The cameras, the apps on our phones needing permission to access our cameras and microphones, privacy agreements that are thrown out the window, and so on. Stone fuels the film with this sense of never feeling safe under a government that is supposed to make you secure.
The film also questions patriotism and how addressing concerns and questioning the government is what this country was initially founded on. It implores audiences to ask, to research, to understand the depth of this betrayal. Not by Snowden, but by agencies that are supposed to be on the lookout and instead abuse their power. Snowden isn’t liberated in knowing what really goes on behind the scenes. He’s instead burdened by it, by not being able to speak to anyone about it, most especially his girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley). Their relationship has several rifts in it, and since we’re only privy to Snowden’s perspective, it isn’t always clear why they continue to stay together. Snowden ponders how “a lot of people cruise happily through life” and if they can, why can’t he do the same? Gordon-Levitt very clearly relays Snowden’s internal struggle and the difficulty he faces. The expanse of loneliness he feels when he’s able to access virtually anything is quite potent throughout.
What the film doesn’t do is more thoroughly inform. It’s definitely more focused on the thriller aspect more so than on the bigger issues at play. Stone enjoys pushing forward and then backing away before touching on the subjects again. Though meant to really add to Snowden’s sense of constantly and knowingly being watched, the addition and exploration of his relationship with Lindsay peters in and out of the narrative. It never quite sticks and could have been more thoroughly explored.
Ultimately, “Snowden” is full of thrills and chills. It thoroughly builds up tension and suspense, but doesn’t really add anything in terms of what we already know about the title character. Despite adding a bit more background story, what Snowden released and his intent for the information was never for personal gain and the film makes this abundantly clear. “Snowden” is on par with Stone’s past work and one of his better films to come out in a few years. But however intriguing and captivating the film can be at times, its tendency to gloss over being more informative makes “Citizenfour” a more superior watch.
"Snowden" is on par with Oliver Stone's past work and one of his better films to come out in a few years. But however intriguing and captivating the film can be at times, its tendency to gloss over being more informative makes "Citizenfour" a more superior watch.