For as dependent as modern society has become on computers, and for as real a threat as the hacking of private information has accordingly become, film still struggles fairly often with how to convey the true scale of a hack. Particularly in the case of Snowden, Oliver Stone’s biopic about the life and flight of the military recruit-turned-U.S. fugitive Edward Snowden, the task is daunting. Snowden’s revelations about the depths of U.S.-mandated information hoarding in 2013 have often posed another question for journalists and filmmakers and the like: how exactly do you convey the internet’s sense of scale? Sure, people are aware that virtually everyone on Earth now has some form of smart technology, but how do you illustrate that in a world that seems to be shrinking even as the connections grow more prominent?
And that’s the sensation of the world shrinking before you become, by law, a traitor against the United States. Based on a book by Snowden’s current lawyer in Russia, Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden follows the kind of real-life story custom-tailored to Stone’s better sensibilities. After being discharged from the military over a general lack of physical competence, Edward (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) quickly finds his way into the CIA, based on his total dedication to country and desire to serve the greater good using his exceptional security and hacking skills. (Stone is not a subtle filmmaker, and Snowden is hardly a subtle film.) As envisioned here, Snowden is the kind of consummate “good man” who can complete a CIA invasion-and-extraction test in under 40 minutes, and who doesn’t have much to say when the agent-turned-instructor Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage) begins to wax nihilistic about the military-industrial values of the information-gathering business.
But then, the end of Snowden’s story has already been written. Stone cuts between the formative experiences of Edward Snowden the CIA analyst and Edward Snowden, infamous global runaway. A number of the film’s key sequences re-enact the now-famous Guardian article in which Snowden’s findings about egregious U.S. wiretapping and information collection came to light. Curiously, the film also retraces Snowden’s filmed interview as that article was published, which Laura Poitras would use as the centerpiece of her Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour. (Poitras is played by Melissa Leo here). At the time, they and Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) were holed up in a Hong Kong hotel, in the days before Snowden’s U.S. passport would be revoked over the publication of his stolen information and he would end up stranded in Russia, with asylum.
Snowden is firmly an act of hero worship, which works both for and against it. In the film’s favor, Stone finds himself returning to themes from some of his most well-regarded work: the valor of political sedition, the American government’s relationships to its people, the everyday dystopia of a wired-in world, the terrors of war. To that last point, some of Snowden’s more impassioned moments see the director using his usual visual trickery in the service of an eerie, pervasive paranoia at which the film hints early and often. When Edward and his longtime paramour Lindsay (Shailene Woodley) are out on one of their earlier dates, her insistence on taking pictures of him leads to a series of harsh, voyeuristic candids, each splashed onscreen as a sort of dryly ironic warning. Later, while they have sex, Snowden is unable to resist taking a long gaze through his monitor’s camera, wondering who’s looking on the other side.
That Snowden knew somebody was watching gives the film a palpable sense of unnerving, paranoid dread that benefits it when Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald’s screenplay works through a fairly rote series of biopic beats. Snowden begins to discover over the years that his programs are being used for more than just backup data storage, he learns that the U.S. itself is the State Department’s most monitored nation in the world, and soon he’s forced to choose between his life as a military man with a good job and a loving girlfriend, and a more radical kind of patriot. At least, that’s the distinct tone the film takes; for as powerfully stated as some of Snowden is, the film loses some of its power in its total unwillingness to engage with the complicated morality of Snowden’s deeds; even Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), the CIA director who initially takes Edward under his wing, tells him early on that “you don’t have to agree with your politicians to be a patriot.” The film makes its argument clear from early on: this act was a matter of absolute moral necessity. And if it’s an unusually radical argument for what’s otherwise often a fairly standard “based on true events” story, it leaves the story free of much of the complexity and deep existential terror that Citizenfour was able to muster, in favor of the kind of heroic posturing usually reserved onscreen for movies about famed college sports coaches.
Though Gordon-Levitt’s deliberately low-affect turn is a more than capable anchor for the film’s action, the terrific cast assembled is often tasked with enlivening underwritten roles. Cage is enjoyable, but involved in only a few scenes; Quinto and Leo are mostly tasked with alternating concern and outrage in their time onscreen. Though the relationship between Edward and Lindsay constitutes the majority of the film’s most clichéd sequences, Woodley does appealing, relatable work here; together, the couple’s slow progression into struggle and secrecy is more substantial than it needs to be. Otherwise, this is a simpler biopic given Stone’s history of rabble-rousing epics, a slightly-more-engaging take on the thematically similar The Fifth Estate that at least breathes a little more life into the proceedings.
Yet for its shakier passages, Snowden cuts through the noise in rare voice from time to time. At one point, Stone envisions the web created by a single CIA search: when one person is watched, their whole family and friends and network of tangential connections are also watched. And the connections of those people are watched. And in a more restrained film (well, for Stone) than some of the director’s recent work, it’s a bombastic moment which articulates the kind of Big Brother dread that Snowden lived with for so many years before going public. Likewise, when O’Brian confronts a pre-flight Snowden in an interrogation using a wall-size computer projection of himself, it’s an effective high dramatization; Ifans’ all-knowing overlord reducing Snowden to a place of absolute submission. Though not of all the visual gambits pay off (a late, kaleidoscopic farewell to Snowden is especially hokey), the film is occasionally able to match the scale of its hard-sell intentions.
Snowden is a film of sincere outrage, even when it strains to articulate that outrage in a less from-the-headlines manner, and a reminder that right now, somewhere else in the world, the real Edward Snowden is still waiting to return home.