Movie Review: ‘Snowden’

Director: Oliver Stone

Cast: Joseph Gordon Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage

Plot: Edward Snowden worked for the CIA and the NSA as a computer specialist and became privy to the degree to which they were spying on and collecting information about the public, information he leaked to the world media after stealing thousands of documents as proof. This film charts his career in government agencies and eventual status as a whistleblower.

Review: Well, if you haven’t stuck tape over your computer’s web camera you certainly will after seeing this movie. Still as startling now as it was when it became public knowledge in 2013 the US government (among others) have been snooping on our calls, texts, social media and internet usage whether we want them to or not. It may be easy to make the argument that you’ve got nothing to worry about if you’ve got nothing to hide, but it’s difficult to justify why government agents have the ability to switch on your computer’s camera without your knowledge and record what you’re doing even while you’re sitting here reading this.


Since the NSA leak in 2013 there’s been little action against this kind of surveillance and discussion of Snowden and his actions have faded away. Snowden is important because it encourages peoples to keep thinking about internet privacy. Well known conspiracy nut Oliver Stone takes a more reigned in approach than usual with this biopic, focusing on Snowden’s story and version of events rather than following his usual discussion of secret world governments and assassination plots. This is absolutely the right decision as it’s a story that speaks for itself. It’s unlikely to turn sceptics and opponents of Snowden into believers, but it does put the story back into the public eye.

Joseph Gordon Levitt gives a subtle performance as the titular Snowden, having captured the mannerisms and voice of the public figure fairly well. His actions against the government are juxtaposed against his relationship with his partner Lindsay Mills (Woodley), something he struggles to maintain. He’s backed by a varied and talented supporting cast, none of whom get much screen time of their own to flesh out their characters. Although we have Woodley, Quinto, Wilkinson, Leo and Ifans playing key figures in this drama we only see them as small parts of Snowden’s story.


Even more skirted over are Snowden’s colleagues at the CIA and NSA. Whilst they form the bulk of his interactions they are all reduced to a single memorable characteristic and you’d hard pressed to remember any of their names. Considering they strongly imply that some of Snowden’s peers at the NSA were aware of what he was planning it’s strange that they aren’t given any follow up after the fact. The film makes a point of saying that anyone suspected involved could be subject to criminal chargers and possibly torture, so it’s strange that the film drops characters out of the story like bits of lint.

In spite of what the trailer throws at us, there’s little in the way of gimmicky graphics and forced symbolism. It does occur in the film, but what you saw in the trailer is just about it. The technology side of the issue gets presented quite simply, with the viewer being given examples of privacy breaches occurring on screen with the fancy graphics only coming into play on occasion. In spite of this more realistic approach and the plot thread about his girlfriend the movie does feel emotionally disconnected. You never feel a strong personal connection to the characters of their situation. It does manage to remain engaging for the 2+ hours run time but it never moves the audience to feel anything beyond indignation at the government actions.


This is a movie worth seeing. It’s not going to change the world but it’s worth having a conversation about. If you didn’t follow the Edward Snowden story when it broke, or you’re not familiar with the level of intrusion on our digital lives happening in the modern world then this should absolutely be on your viewing list.

Rating: SEVEN out of TEN