Movies that try to capture moments in recent history often feel like a pointless proposition, given that the Internet age allows us access to a crazy number of news sources, with perspectives and events unfolding in real time. We no longer have to wait weeks, days or even hours to find out the latest world events. It’s all online, ready to be discovered and discussed. Maybe that’s why so many movies that try and capture the zeitgeist of our current political climate end up feeling painfully forced. They try to add layers of additional drama to a well-established story, with which we are already too familiar.
This was the case with another recent Oliver Stone movie, “W”—a difficult slog through a series of widely publicized behind-the-scenes moments in the life of George W. Bush. Nothing about it felt new, and the moments we knew already lacked a punch. The truth was far stranger (and more interesting) than Oliver Stone’s attempt at a fictionalized version of it. Fortunately, “Snowden” doesn’t fall victim to the same fate.
The movie is an interesting examination of a man and events that led to his controversial decision to leak classified information about America’s secret surveillance program. Let’s just get this out of the way: It’s only “controversial” because there are so many jingoistic twats in this country who are blissfully ignorant enough to willingly sign their privacy away for the false sense of security it gives them.
Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the kind of person we should use to set our country’s moral compass. He’s a guy who basically gave up every shred of his own life to educate the public on the illegal activities going on in the deepest recesses of America’s intelligence gathering community. Oliver Stone does a good job of not just portraying Snowden, but his long-time girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley). She takes this journey of anxiety, depression and character alongside him. To understand everything Snowden gave up, we have to understand exactly what he lost, which is why the scenes with Snowden and Lindsay are so important to the foundation of the film.
Stone uses a pretty standard narrative device to tell the story, and tracks Snowden’s time in Hong Kong as the whistleblower revealed the details of the leak to Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) in a cramped hotel room. We see Snowden in the days just before his story goes live to the public and then we see flash backs as he reveals the details of his difficult past. We follow Snowden through his failed attempt at joining the Army, the infancy of his relationship with Lindsey and his first foray into the CIA. Snowden is a ridiculously smart computer programmer who is quickly identified by Corden (Rhys Ifans) as a prodigy in need of a mentor.
Snowden is schooled in the world of cyber intelligence and the changing face of modern warfare. He’s a patriot at heart who wants to serve his country. His devotion doesn’t waver—that is until he learns of secret programs used to spy on innocent Americans without their knowledge.
What’s interesting about Edward Snowden is how he is capable of rationalizing the decisions of his employers. At first there are small doubts and fissures within his mind. With every subsequent experience working for the CIA and NSA, the cracks begin to widen and weigh heavier on his mind. Eventually, he realizes the liberties the government is taking with the law and trust of the American people, all of which is just too close for comfort. He puts together a plan to expose these secrets, and in the process, go from high-paid intelligence consultant to the most wanted man in the world.
It’s an interesting journey to watch onscreen, even for those familiar with the story. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives an amazing performance as Snowden, and makes the character a challenging puzzle of political allegiances and personal ticks. He commits to the role and turns in one of the most accomplished performances of the year.
“Snowden” is an exceptionally well-told film and avoids the kind of cloying melodrama that plagues so many current real-world adaptations. It’s a formidable drama that feels like one of the most complete and satisfying movies of the year.