Today I watched ‘Snowden’, which is a biographical political film documenting the NSA whistleblower Ed Snowden’s life. This is a German-American produced film directed by Oliver Stone (who directed films like ‘Platoon’ (1986) and ‘JFK’ (1991), as well as numerous political documentaries), and written by Stone and the cinematographer Kieran Fitzgerald. The narrative is based on the books The Snowden Files by Luke Harding and Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena.
The film’s plot documents Ed Snowden’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) life between 2004 and 2013. This begins with his days in the U.S. Army, in which he wants to help the Special Forces, but is discharged after an accident, so has to serve his country in other ways. Consequently, Snowden applies to work with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and is hired by Deputy Director Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) despite him not completely passing his tests, due to the need for extra people in, what O’Brian deems as, these ‘extraordinary times’ (i.e. post 9/11 terrorist threats).
The film then documents Snowden’s career and work leading up to and becoming recruited by the National Security Agency (NSA). His story about working here is intermingled with the story of him becoming a whistleblower, as in 2013 he meets documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) in Hong Kong, who, along with Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), help Snowden release classified information that Snowden has acquired regarding illegal mass surveillance conducted by the NSA, which makes him disillusioned about his past work and the Secret Service in general.
Firstly, I want to say how amazing Joseph Gordon-Levitt is as Ed Snowden. His appearance right down to his voice are impeccable. Up until now, I think I have only ever seen him in rom-coms like ’10 Things I Hate About You’ (1999) and ‘500 Days of Summer’ (2009), in which he usually plays cutesy, ‘nice guys’, who are most often than not too nice. In ‘Snowden’, however, another side of Gordon-Levitt comes into play. He portrays Snowden, who is a highly intelligent human-being, whose morals and ethics are being tested when it comes to his job with the Secret Service. This puts him at odds with wanting to serve his country, and inevitably puts his relationship with his girlfriend Lindsey Mills (Shailene Woodley) on the rocks through the frustrations of not being able to speak about this. I thought his acting was very believable, and could definitely imagine him as Snowden, as he was able to express and communicate across the feelings of isolation and frustration in a seemless fashion. I thought he was very engaging, and look forward to seeing what else Gordon-Levitt has to offer in the future.
Secondly, cinematically certain scenes in this film were just beautiful. There was a scene in which lights representing how the internet connects people across the world together spread into a diagram, which the camera panned out of whilst the image faded into the iris of an eye. This was flawlessly edited, and was a symbolic moment for a discovery that Snowden makes. Entire scenes like this made the impact of technology, used for surveillance purposes, seem daunting in the beautiful techniques used throughout the film. These special effects enhanced the meaning of the story, of the actual impact that technology and surveillance has on the world, of which most people are seemingly unaware.
In terms of the cast, as mentioned above, I thought that Gordon-Levitt was a perfect choice for Snowden. He did the story justice, as did the 3 main journalists (Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson). I like the fact that they were not preened and make-up heavy or stylish. It gave the film the documentary look it needed, and helped emphasis that the narrative is based on real events. However, I did not think that Shailene Woodley worked well as playing Lindsley Mills (Snowden’s girlfriend). I thought that she acted well, but for some reason I still associate her with playing teenager and coming-of-age films (like in ‘The Fault in our Stars’ (2014), despite her being 25 years old now… I was not captivated by her performance, and she did not bring enough to the role, which was especially evident against Gordon-Levitt’s strong performance. I feel that she was cast wrong.
Although I enjoyed the film, I felt that the film itself was not quite captivating enough… I could not quite put my finger on what I did not enjoy. I found it was quite long, but on reflection felt that nothing could have been cut, as it would not have made sense otherwise. Similarly, cutting anything would have detracted from the film’s collectic style – parts are told from Snowden’s perspective, others are told from an interview style, and then the present time film is played out – which works well. I liked that real news footage and clips of Snowden are used, which again emphasis that this story is real.
I think the thing I did not enjoy was that this was supposed to be a political thriller, but it just was not gripping enough. I think had certain scenes been more fast-paced, the music made more intense, and a stronger female lead been cast, then this would have given this film the extra ‘umph’ it needed.
Overall, I liked ‘Snowden’. It was a very informative film told in a interesting way (through multiple layers of storytelling). I would definitely see it again, if only to help me digest more of the information that is exposed (as I find America a fascinating place) but would not choose to watch it repeatedly. I think that the film was not gripping enough – the plot, the cinematography and Gordon-Levitt definitely held this film together… also, the ending was a bit cheesy. It was cleverly done, but I am not sure it was necessary. The way the film ended on Snowden’s message of ‘I don’t have to worry about tomorrow because I’m happy with what I’ve done today’ came across like an inspirational laptop ad… I feel that it could have ended without this and just summarised with words detailing what has happened since Snowden has divulged the secrets of the NSA to the general public. ‘Snowden’ had very strong elements, it was just undermined by other factors that, and if different, could have made this into a very engaging political thriller. As it stands, it is just a very interesting film with a strong lead – well done Joseph Gordon-Levitt!!!