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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Dan's Review: "Snowden" a good portrait of a controversial man

Sep 18, 2016 07:02PM ● By Dan Metcalf

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Snowden - © Open Road Films

Snowden (Open Road Films)

Rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity.

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Schnetzer, LaKeith Lee Stanfield, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Edward Snowden.

Written by Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone, based on The Snowden Files by Luke Harding and Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena.

Directed by Oliver Stone.



People have a generally high opinion of themselves when it comes to “being good.” It is also a common belief among most Americans to see themselves as somewhat patriotic, despite having unique versions of what it means to represent the core values of our country’s founding. For some, going to war represents true patriotism, while to others, avoiding war at all costs is equally loyal to the “American” way. Partisans often claim exclusivity to the idea of patriotism, while vehemently accusing their counterparts of treason, simply for not wearing the proper color or cheering for appropriate mascot, as one would root for respective sports teams. But what if both sides are wrong? What if our leaders, regardless of political party affiliation, have violated the very core of American values? These are the questions that Edward Snowden faced when he discovered that our government had violated the privacy of all citizens. His story is the focus of Snowden, directed by Oliver Stone.

Joseph Gordon-Leavitt stars as Snowden, a young man who wanted to serve his country after the horrors of 9/11. After getting a medical discharge, Snowden is hired by the CIA as a computer counterintelligence specialist, where he is mentored by the mysterious and creepy Corbin O’Brien (Rhys Ifans). He also meets the beautiful Lindsay (Shailene Woodley) online and strikes up a romantic relationship.

While working in Geneva, Switzerland, Snowden becomes disillusioned when he discovers that the CIA uses sleazy methods, and he resigns. Later, Snowden takes on a job with the National Security Agency and Dell Computers, which has a contract with the CIA. During all his experiences with the CIA and NSA, Snowden learns that the U.S. Government has been spying on all citizens, not just those suspected of terrorism. Snowden reaches a breaking point after seeing Obama’s Director of national Intelligence James Clapper lie before Congress when asked if the government is spying on its citizens. He decides to expose the NSA and CIA, and sneaks out of a Hawaiian underground cyber intelligence bunker with all the data he needs to prove it. Snowden contacts Guardian journalists Glen Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), along with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) to tell his story. They meet in a Hong Kong hotel room, where Snowden spills the beans about the spying program.

Snowden possesses all the markings of an Oliver Stone movie. It’s high on distrust of government leadership and shady dealings. What separates Snowden from Stone’s other pot-stirring political gadfly movies is the sense that most of what you see on screen has been verified as the truth, rather than the product of a conspiracy theories. Snowden himself appears in the movie, making a plea for more transparency and less governmental invasion of privacy.

Joseph Gordon-Leavitt’s performance is notable but not especially memorable, and the strength of Snowden isn’t found in its actors or Oliver Stone’s filmmaking prowess. It’s found in the courage of one man who dared question whether our leaders are above the law, and did something about it.

I don’t generally get political in my film reviews, and it should be noted that Snowden is not a film that can be affiliated with any particular partisan ideology. Republicans and Democrats alike share the blame for a system that operated outside the bounds of the U.S. Constitution, and Snowden is a film that illustrates this point rather effectively.

Incidentally, while Snowden is a good (but not great) film, it pales in comparison to Citizen Four, 2014’s Academy Award-winning documentary by Laura Poitras. I highly recommend it as a companion piece to Stone’s film.

Snowden Trailer