If there ever was a story tailor made for Oliver Stone’s sensibilities, “Snowden” is it. Polarizing in the extreme, Ed Snowden, an American computer wiz who leaked classified information from the National Security Agency to The Guardian, was called a traitor by Donald Trump and a hero by the New Yorker. Two hours into this biopic it’s not hard to see which side of the fence Stone falls on.
It’s 2003 when we first meet future whistleblower Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) he’s a grunt in the US Army struggling through basic training. The deeply patriotic high-school dropout wants to serve his country but his body doesn’t cooperate. Honourably discharged for medical reasons he turns to the CIA, hoping to find meaningful work as a computer specialist and because, “it sounds really cool to have a top security clearance.”
Hired on, he learns the tools of today’s warfare. “The modern battlefield is everywhere,” he’s told while designing and building computer systems he believes will keep his country safe. Meanwhile the secretive nature of his work is slowly driving a wedge between he and girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), a liberal leaning photographer who doesn’t always support Ed’s views but always supports him.
Over the next decade his efforts to prevent terrorists and cyber attacks leads him down a rabbit hole of intrigue and double-dealings. Partially responsible for running a dragnet on the whole world he helps gather information—using cell phone and computer cameras—on regular everyday citizens as well as the baddies and begins to question his mandate. The NSA, he says is tracking the cell phones of everyone. “Not just terrorists or countries,” he says, “but us.”
In June 2013 he decides to go public by leaking classified information from the National Security Agency to The Guardian. “I just want to get the data to the media so people can decide whether I’m wrong,” he says, “or if the government is wrong.”
A title card at the beginning of “Snowden” reads, “The following is a dramatization of events that occurred between 2004 and 2013.” That gives director Stone ample leeway to tell the story his way. In other words, this ain’t a documentary. It is clear he is on Snowden’s side, that he doesn’t see him as a traitor or snitch but a hero. His thesis seems to be that you don’t have to agree with your politicians to be a patriot. Stone supports his view visually—Snowden literally comes out of the darkness and into the light when he leaves the NSA building for the last time—and through the actions and words of several of his characters. Rhys Ifans plays a CIA trainer/master manipulator who feeds Snowden’s naïve patriotism with defence mantras. “Most Americans don’t want freedom,” he preaches, “they want security.” Later Snowden’s NSA supervisor Trevor (Scott Eastwood) argues that a job like the one Snowden is doing, can’t be criminal “if you’re working for the government.”
But hey, this isn’t CNN or Fox News, it’s a big screen entertainment and on that score it works. Gordon-Levitt transforms into a monotone über nerd, equal parts sweetness and paranoia. What he lacks in warmth Woodley more than makes up for, handing in a performance that is all emotion and concern.
When Ifans leaves a video conference call with the sign off, “I’ll see you soon,” those simple words take on a sinister feel when it is clear that he really can see you, whether you know it or not. Stone may not be able to shape the way you feel about Ed Snowden, but if nothing else he’ll make you want to cover the camera on your computer.