Snowden is far from director Oliver Stone’s first foray into the political sphere, but it may be his most timely entry in a long while. Adapted from multiple sources and through discussions with Edward Snowden himself, Snowden is a sleek portrait of the events leading up to and surrounding Snowden’s famous whistleblowing efforts in 2013. The film is led by Joseph Gordon Levitt, in a studied but soulful performance as the titular Snowden, and Shailene Woodley as Snowden’s longtime paramour.
What Snowden manages that so few biopics or dramatizations or recent events fail to achieve is the act of adding suspense to a story the end of which the viewer already knows. To be fair, the exact events aren’t known to many, but it’s still a credit to everyone involved that even at two hours and 18 minutes, the film feels fleet and the tension is palpable. This is thanks, in part, to a non-linear structure that transitions between a Snowden on the lam, working with journalists to get the information out there, and the path of his transition from soldier to analyst to contractor, and ultimately, to whistleblower.
What this version of the story does that an article or even a documentary cannot is place the viewer squarely in Snowden’s own mind and emotions. It’s powerfully affecting and expertly done. The burden of knowledge is an intimidating prospect on paper, but you don’t feel the weight of that burden quite so acutely until you see it played out on screen. There’s a layer of paranoia that creeps into even the most mundane moments (aided by very subtle technical white noise that suggests Big Brother as much as Edward’s discoveries), but there’s also an amazing spirit of hope. Snowden, as the film presents him, just wants to make a difference and do the right thing.
We meet a man who is a patriot through and through from the word go. He wants to serve his country in combat and even scoffs at his lady love for criticizing George W. Bush. And we watch as over time, he comes to redefine what it means to a patriot: Rather than an act of blindly defending the powers that be, Edward comes to believe that patriotism is sometimes using the freedoms he wanted to defend to inform the people. It’s a heady and optimistic idea that assumes a basic goodness in people. There is something so very earnest in that notion that by the time the screen fades to black, Edward Snowden isn’t just an action; he’s a complete person.