Oliver Stone is acutely aware that this is a Hollywood movie. Snowden, despite its sincere, liberal agenda, is a glossy reconstruction of Edward Snowden’s brave decision to blow the whistle on the enormous tracking and surveillance conducted by the US government.
The Guardian journalists are depicted shouting at their bosses and the romance between Snowden and his girlfriend, Lindsey Mills, is all drama and cinematic passion. If you’re happy to hear the story without the trappings of movie magic, then Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary, Citizenfour, powerfully sets the record straight. Otherwise, Snowden is a smart, thrilling and satisfying movie, with an outstanding central performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, perfectly capturing the mild-mannered, polite “hacker” that still resides in Russia today, cut off from his home land.
The revelations Ed Snowden made in May 2013 provides the spine to the story. Days of interviews with Snowden, documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), journalists Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) are what introduced the ex-CIA employee to all of us. From their questioning, it flashes back to his training in the military, what forced him to stop and the pull he had to the CIA. Ed Snowden was marked out as a genius early on and his unique skillset meant he was the perfect candidate for the secretive tasks he was expected to carry out. His access to such sensitive information was because he could create programs and use them expertly. Sadly, it took its toll on his longtime girlfriend (Shailene Woodley), moving between America, Japan and Hawaii. The moral dilemma forced Snowden to get out, with the data hidden in a Rubik’s cube, to prove that the government was illegally spying on millions of Americans daily.
The issue with Hollywood stories is that they simultaneously raise awareness of an issue but also amplify it to extreme proportions. Those who see Snowden as a criminal and terrorist won’t have their mind changed by this film. If they followed the case to any extent, it is clear already how sincere he was in his intentions and how the government acted with excessive force to make their point: whistleblowers will not be supported. Therefore, nothing new is added to the debate regarding surveillance and privacy. In fact, with Donald Trump as President, Stone could re-edit the film (“Snowden: The Trump Cut”) with a considerably darker edge, reminding us of the ramifications of a power-obsessed narcissist being in control of such tech.
But there is another audience; an audience who doesn’t watch political documentaries or read detailed reports on “Prism”, “XKeystroke” and “Tempora” programs in the broadsheets. If this is their gateway to the bigger story, then it is clearly a necessary watch. It paints the picture in broad strokes and lays on the technological-lingo a little too hard, but with a likable cast and a clear point to make, it fulfils its intention to excite and educate, with a particular final flourish that adds authenticity. Snowden may feel a little late in the day, with more pressing issues in the White House now, but it is worth reminding ourselves of what’s at stake. There’s a reason some people cover their laptop cameras with masking tape. There is a reason people disconnect from social networks and carefully monitor what they are ‘logged in’ on. Watching Snowden, only weeks after the “Snooper’s charter’ bill becomes law” in the UK, is a warning. Does anybody really know the consequence of agencies holding all our information for twelve months? Snowden himself is concerned with UK surveillance in particular: “They [GCHQ] are worse than the US.”, he says.
But the film, Snowden, is accessible, engaging and supported by strong performances. The take away shouldn’t be the generic flaws on the surface but the strength and importance of the message within.
This review originally appeared on Culturefly in December 2016