Snowden (2016)

09/17/2016  By  Martin R. Schneider     No comments

There’s a strange feeling one gets when walking out of Oliver Stone’s infotainment piece Snowden, like the leaving of a casino or a strip club.

It’s a sensation there is no word for, the sense that you received exactly what you paid for yet somehow still got ripped off. But truth be told, you’re not all that upset about it. Indeed, the film delivers everything you would expect from a movie about the NSA’s biggest headache coming from Hollywood’s favorite conspiracy theorist. But the whole thing feels like it’s slow-pitch, a soft target that’s more entertaining than attacking. The movie comes across as, for lack of a better word, “fun.” Given the subject matter, this feels bizarre and borderline inappropriate, but not entirely unpleasant to experience.


“Hey guys, whatcha got there, some government secrets?”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt leads the recap of the past decade of Ed Snowden’s life, from his time in the Army to his work with the CIA, on through meeting his longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), up to the days after he leaks the details of the US Government’s biggest domestic surveillance programs to journalists and filmmakers. Zachary Quinto is a smartly-cast Glenn Greenwald, Tom Wilkinson plays The Guardian’s Ewan McAskill, and Melissa Leo serves as JGL’s sounding board in her portrayal of CitizenFour filmmaker Laura Poitras.

In fact, that’s a good jumping-off point to discuss one of the film’s more peculiar aspects. Half of the movie is actually a dramatized remake of Poitras’ existing documentary, with dialogue and tense moments directly lifted from it. These moments of tension, where Ed and the journalists wait in a hotel room to face the ramifications of their actions, are some of the best parts of the film. They just happen to be from a different, better, movie. If you’ve seen that film and are hoping for new information to supplement your knowledge of the Snowden saga, you won’t find it here. The only novel concept that Stone brings to the table is the fact that Ed Snowden is kind of a lousy boyfriend. It should be noted that Stone’s film doesn’t ever appear like it intends to add to CitizenFour, more like it’s a way to spread that information out to a wider audience.


Ed thought the “Have you ever leaked thousands of classified government documents to the press?” question was a little on-the-nose.

Because that’s what Oliver Stone does. He doesn’t even pretend to be objective; he uses his money and influence to make entertaining and stylish propaganda for whatever his pet cause or conspiracy is at the moment. Snowden is no different, an unashamed puff piece for the controversial figure, and that is perfectly fine. The problem is that once you realize that’s all it is, it becomes incredibly difficult to take seriously.

The movie’s bizarre tone doesn’t do it any favors. Oliver Stone is not known for subtlety, but here it borders on cartoonish. Rhys Ifans plays CIA Official Corbin O’Brian, the film’s representative of big government, with so much obvious bombast he feels like the baddie in a children’s movie. At one point he even appears on a gigantic screen to deliver thinly-veiled threats in a manner that’s much more Dr. Evil than it is Big Brother.

Meanwhile, Ed and Lindsay’s relationship develops like a romantic comedy called Red State/Blue State about a free-spirited hippie who falls for a military operative. We’re treated to painfully stupid scenes where bubbly Lindsay uses her sweet personality to help Ed on CIA business, making contacts with men whose lives he will later indirectly destroy. How cute! Rounding out the weirdness is a brief appearance by Nicolas Cage as a cryptography expert and early mentor for Snowden. Cage clearly relishes being part of this, tearing through his eccentric dialogue with all the swagger and bravado of a man who knows he has no reason to be there. Fortunately (or possibly not), he’s relegated to only about eight minutes of screentime. Any more of his energy would have tipped the scales too far into outright farce.


I just realized that 90% of the stills for this movie feature a character looking at a laptop.

Then there’s the slickness and stylistic choices. In case you don’t quite grasp the movies’ themes, Stone includes more close-ups of eyeballs than an art student’s Instagram. There’s also some interesting, if cheesy, ways to visualize data transference. These range from the standard shots of lit-up servers and translucent computer data overlapping on people’s faces to a dynamic neon map of connections between people which could double as a beautiful Verizon commercial if you removed JGL’s voice-over explaining how it can all be used against us. The most intriguing and creative visual sequences accompany Snowden’s two seizures in the film. Common visual obstacles such as the smoke from a campfire or the steam rising off a pot of freshly-made spaghetti serve to disorient Snowden, and the audience as well. This provides opportunity to show many issues to flash through Snowden’s eyes and mind as he collapses, and it’s a unique way to bring us into Ed’s headspace, if only for a moment.

The parts of the film which are difficult to watch aren’t upsetting because of their content, they’re annoying because they’re flaws of a film. It’s difficult to channel the energy of a young and extremely recent public figure, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt never starts to actually feel like Edward Snowden. He constantly comes off as JGL doing a strange Edward Snowden affectation. This becomes all the more obvious when the actual Snowden shows up at the end. Unfortunately, you better learn to love that voice because at some point in the middle of the film you will stop and realize that it has been delivering a monologue to you for the past 25 minutes. Ed Snowden essentially gets to deliver a TED talk throughout Act II using JGL as a proxy. I realized I praised this same technique in The Big Short (which borrows heavily from Stone’s other works) but the timing and execution from that movie are just lost here.

Finally, while it’s easy to appreciate Stone’s open bias, the fawning and doting over Perfect Edward gets very old, very fast.

Another character refers to Ed mockingly as “Snow White”, and that’s precisely what he is; a blank slate of chastity and virtue whose limited wrongdoings are immediately cleared because he feels bad about them. This treatment is just dull, and continues to make you fully aware that you are watching a piece of propaganda. (Which means it’s not even good at being propaganda.) No matter what your personal feelings on Snowden might be, we can all agree it’s rather grating to watch this personality-free nothing march out into bright light while triumphant music plays like he’s on his way to Nerd Valhalla.


“Sweetie, honey… you don’t have to do the voice. Don’t do the voice anymore, it’s weird.”

In a way, this lily-white, edgeless portrayal of Snowden, the man, is representative of what the audience gets out of Snowden, the film. Despite its flaws, Snowden is quite entertaining, even downright silly at times. Which is, of course, completely unfitting. That’s what makes this film difficult to rate or recommend. I liked watching this movie, but it feels like I shouldn’t have. Oliver Stone attempted to give us a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, but instead he went too far in the other direction, leaving us with a syrupy mess.

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About Martin R. Schneider


Martin Schneider has opinions about a lot of things, and sometimes he writes them down. But he tries not to be a douchebag about it, though.

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