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Review: Snowden

September 16, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Snowden PosterIt’s an almost gargantuan task to try and encapsulate the story of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden into a single film, but Oliver Stone proves himself up to the challenge with Snowden.  The filmmaker’s best and most politically charged film in years, this is an engaging and provocative dramatic thriller that successfully depicts one of the most polarizing and important figures of our time.

Boasting a fine performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the title role, the film uses a narrative that jumps around in time to show Edward Snowden’s career trajectory from a patriotic army hopeful who was discharged after breaking his legs, to working for the CIA under Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), and being sent to a secret base for the NSA in Hawaii.

This leads him to the startling realization that the government is using terrorism as an excuse to enact overreaching surveillance measures, with the intelligence agencies collecting metadata provided by the phone companies, and even utilizing technology that allows them to hack into any computer to use the webcam as a virtual window into the lives of private citizens.  These revelations about how technology can be used against virtually anyone to track, control and censor freedom of speech, compel him to steal a wealth of classified documents proving to the world that the United States is spying on its own citizens.

Although there is no doubt that Edward Snowden is a controversial figure, who is wrongfully viewed by some as a traitor to his country, Snowden admirably treats his actions as heroic, and the film does a good job of showing the complex moral reasoning that went into his decision to expose the NSA.  Even though this material was already explored brilliantly in the essential documentary Citizenfour, which allowed us to watch the action unfold in real time at the Hong Kong hotel room where he took refuge after stealing the documents, Snowden packs a lot of information into its surprisingly quick 134 minute running time.

The film shows how his “smart conservative” ideals are initially challenged by his very liberal girlfriend, free-spirited amateur photographer and pole dancing instructor Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), as his work causes him to question the government in a way that he never did before.  The film also depicts documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), and Guardian reporters Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Levi) and Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who are holed up at the hotel with him and have to convince their paper to publish the leaks, in scenes that pretty much recreate moments from Citizenfour.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt carries the film with a carefully measured performance, allowing us to get used to his dropped voice, with moments when his physical resemblance to the subject becomes uncanny.  The rest of the supporting cast is also solid, including nice supporting work from Shailene Woodley, and a quietly menacing Rhys Ifans.  The film is edited to give the whole thing a decidedly modern feel, keeping things moving at an engaging pace, utilizing stylistic touches to visualize the spread of information and even mixing in bits of actual news footage to help tell the story.  It’s all framed with sleek purpose by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle.

This is a well acted, stylishly made and entertaining account of what Edward Snowden did, that leaves the audience engaged in the important debate about government surveillance that his actions have allowed us to have.  It’s telling that the last words we hear in the film are a soundbite of Bernie Sanders defending him, at a debate where Hillary Clinton called for his trial.  It’s hard to know how things will change in the future in terms of surveillance, even here in Canada, but Edward Snowden deserves to be celebrated for helping us realize the terrifying state of espionage in the digital age.

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