American system administrator and computer professional Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is contracted to the National Security Agency to work in an NSA facility in Hawaii. While there, he learns how the security agency is surveilling US citizens’ communications without their knowledge and without warrants issued from the judiciary. He decides the American people need to know the U.S. Government is spying on its people.
Snowden travels secretly to Hong Kong and leaks what he knows through a series of interviews and the release of thousands of classified documents to the UK newspaper The Guardian. Then he goes public, revealing his identity to make it clear he acted alone. He then begins travelling in secret to avoid being arrested as a spy by the U.S. He is heading for a South American destination when his passport is revoked. This leaves him stranded in Russia.
Russia refuses to return Snowden to the U.S. Years pass and now he lives what he calls a “relatively open” life. The U.S. Government’s charges against Snowden for leaking classified information are pending.
Real-life whistle-blower Edward Snowden is a hero to some and a traitor to others. For Oliver Stone, the film’s co-writer and director, what Snowden did is clearly an heroic act. Obviously Stone has a track record for choosing controversial subjects and delving into political scandal. BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (1989), JFK (1991) and NIXON (1995) are three better-known examples of the director giving his take on the American Century. He enjoys working on a big canvas and has often been accused of bombastic, didactic filmmaking.
Like the aforementioned films, Snowden is a biopic. Stone runs two timelines: firstly, the events surrounding the 2013 leak of the documents to The Guardian in Hong Kong and secondly, Snowden’s biography from late adolescence onward. These storylines are expertly entwined. We have the ticking clock of the hunt for Snowden on one hand and an examination of how a straight-arrow, patriotic computer whiz became deeply disturbed by his government’s power to see into private lives.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance in the title role is remarkable. Gordon-Levitt is an energetic and charismatic actor; here he is playing the ultimate under-the-radar man. Even when Snowden wasn’t an international fugitive, he was someone who had no interest in being the centre of attention. Gordon-Levitt portrays this unflashy individual in a beautifully contained manner. He is ably supported by Shailene Woodley, playing Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills. To some extent, their relationship has the usual strains, however as Snowden becomes more stressed by the nature of his work and yet is unable to express any of this (everything he does is classified), there is a great burden placed on Mills. Rhys Ifans is rather good, disturbing, fun in the role of Corbin O’Brian, a father figure composite concocted for the screenplay. Ifans has developed a serviceable American accent and will be unrecognisable to many who remember him as Spike from NOTTING HILL (1999).
Stone takes some liberties with the story, but overall this is a masterful piece of filmmaking from the veteran director. The screenplay is based on the books The Snowden Files by Luke Harding and Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena. Those interested in a more documentary approach to the story should investigate 2014’s CITIZENFOUR by Laura Poitras. (Poitras is portrayed in SNOWDEN by Melissa Leo)
SNOWDEN is currently in wide release in Australian cinemas. It has duration of 134 minutes.