Before I started watching this film, I decided to look back in Oliver Stone’s filmography to find out his last film that was critically-acclaimed. The sad thing is that you could make a solid argument that Oliver Stone hasn’t made a truly well-received movie since JFK back in 1991. Coincidentally, that was another government/conspiracy theory type film that caused him to get labelled as a “conspiracy theory” director for a while even though he only made a few like that. People thought Stone got pretty saccharine for World Trade Center and very soft for W concerning former President Bush so it would be interesting to see if he could tackle a film about a polarizing figure that would be a bit more in-depth and interesting to watch for viewers.
Snowden takes place between 2004 and 2013 as former NSA employee Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) prepares to “blow the whistle” and leak confidential documents to a team of journalists (Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson). The rest of the film addresses the question “why?” as we see Snowden working his way through the NSA as he discovers their interesting way of searching for keywords used by people all over the world (but mostly in the United States) to find terrorists and other persons of interest. He quickly learns that the methods being employed are not on the up-and-up like he has been led on and soon starts to have his own suspicions about his very own government all the while having to remain secretive about this in front of his loving girlfriend (Shailene Woodley).
Joseph Gordon-Levitt offers up a commanding lead performance as Edward Snowden. Levitt is charming but also secretive and complicated. We always get the sense that Ed is contemplating each situation and outcome in his head, weighing the moral implications of everything that happens. Levitt gets that across almost solely with facial expressions and the way in which he carries himself. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him up for a Golden Globe this year. Shailene Woodley has a good showing as his girlfriend and thankfully doesn’t turn the role into a simple “girlfriend” role if that makes sense. She actually has an important role in shaping Snowden’s decisions for much of the film and brings in a lot of humanity as well. It’s also interesting to have her be such a free spirit compared to Snowden’s rigid paranoia that inhabits much of the film. Some other notable performances come from Rhys Ifan’s intimidating Corbin character (we never really know where he stands until late in the film and he casts quite a presence), Nicolas Cage as an NSA instructor that has his doubts about the system and seems to inspire Snowden’s suspicions early in the film and of course the three journalists played by Leo, Quinto and Wilkinson. Quinto has one particularly effective scene in which he verbally explodes at a fellow news correspondent, Leo has an emotionally satisfying one-on-one conversation scene with Levitt and Wilkinson has such a warm presence throughout the film.
This film excels the most when we are shown scenes in the hotel room involving Snowden and the journalists attempting to get his story out into the world while in hiding from anyone who could interfere with it. We see them sweating to get the story out in a certain timeframe while Snowden is always taking several security precautions and even though most of you will know how the real story unfolded, you will still be caught up in all the hoopla and be on the edge of your seat.
There are a lot of thrilling intense moments though including scenes in which Edward is exposed to a facility in Hawaii when we simply see large explosions (and casualties) conducted by a couple of people having a conversation on a computer. Much like Eye in the Sky that was released earlier this year, we now know that most wars aren’t fought on the battlefield anymore but rather by a click of a button or a few simple keystrokes. This film posits that maybe that isn’t necessarily the safest method even though it may be convenient and secure for our government agencies.
In fact one of the best scenes in the film is an early one in which Snowden goes undercover in order to get some intel on a financier who may give them an indirect link to terrorist intel. This scene is the first time we see Snowden really struggle with his morals and his indecision. I don’t want to give too much away but suffice to say, I was surprised to learn that something like this actually happened in our world. How can the US even be considered the “good guys” doing things like this? I don’t want to get on a soapbox but that is a big question that we are forced to ask ourselves multiple times and it isn’t always readily apparent either.
It’s a very solid espionage thriller and the fact that it’s based in reality only strengthens its effectiveness.
* (Brutal; the worst rating)
** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)
*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)
**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)
***** (Flawless; a true achievement)