Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo
Director: Oliver Stone
Screenplay: Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone
Action/Biography/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Date: September 16, 2016
Greg, are you ready to review Oliver Stone’s latest foray into controversial American political issues?
I was hoping I would be “snowed in” and not able to see it. But, alas, it’s the peak of summer. Let’s recap:
The year is 2013, and Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is in a Hong Kong high rise hotel, arranging to meet journalists from the US and UK. He has information to give them that he illegally downloaded from US intelligence services’ computers. We then flashback to nine years earlier when a young fresh-faced Snowden first applied to join the military special forces.
Snowden wants nothing more than to serve his country. But he is physically unable to get through basic training. He chooses instead to join the CIA as an analyst and study the world of internet hacking. He shows his value immediately as he solves difficult hacking problems in minutes not hours. This endears him to the CIA director, Corbin O’Brien (Rhys Ifans) and leads Snowden into the world of CIA operatives.
Greg, Snowden presents the true story, or at least Oliver Stone’s version of the true story, of a controversial man who leaked classified government information, and then paid the price by being disowned by his country. Among hero activists around the world, Snowden is considered a hero, a whistleblower who sacrificed his career to do the right thing. Many others view him as a traitor who endangered lives. In this film, Oliver Stone clearly takes the heroic interpretation, portraying Snowden as a genius who starts out loyal to the US but slowly transforms into a person who cannot condone the mountain of evidence pointing to his country’s illegal activities.
Stone doesn’t miss an opportunity to paint Snowden in a good light. He’s at once idealist, genius-level intelligent, patriotic, and honest to a fault. In writing we call this a “Mary Sue” – someone so perfect as to be impossible. It’s too bad, because it makes the character on-screen seem unbelievable, and that makes for a bad story.
Snowden starts out believing in America. He is a staunch conservative. When he meets his ultra-liberal girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), they clash over the role of government in American lives. But slowly, as the relationship matures and endures both positive and negative growth, Snowden comes to question his government’s actions. This is an interesting transformation for Snowden – one of ideology.
Right, Greg. So once again we see women having an important transformative effect on men (see also The Light Between Oceans). Lindsay “mentors” Snowden by coaching him to adopt more liberal viewpoints about America and the world. Lindsay’s influence gives Snowden a different lens through which he sees his country’s spying activities. Eventually, Snowden can no longer turn a blind eye to all the rule-breaking that he sees going on within our intelligence communities.
In storytelling, it’s not unusual for a young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed hero to have a lot of learning to do. Snowden arrives at the CIA full of naive idealism. One of the first people he encounters is Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage), a CIA operative who has been banished from the front lines for curious reasons. Forrester plants the first seeds of doubt in Snowden regarding the purity of the CIA’s motives in the world. “You can disagree with your government and still be a patriot,” he tells Snowden — an obvious foreshadowing of what is to come.
Snowden is a one-sided view of Edward Snowden’s decision to become a whistleblower on a government that apparently has overreached its bounds. It’s now a particularly engaging movie. There are long stretches of Snowden doing “coding” tasks. This is not an inspired film. A lot of the technology issues are simplified for the average movie-goer. Certainly, the subtleties of the line between whistleblower and traitor are never explored. I give Snowden just 3 out of 5 Reels.
As a hero, Snowden is painted quite favorably. He is shown as a bright young man with promise. He is also displayed as a patriot who becomes disillusioned with what he deems is unpatriotic behavior. He’s given few if any negative traits. I can only muster 3 out of 5 Heroes for him.
There are a number of good mentors in Snowden. Corbin O’Brien becomes the dark mentor as he leads young Snowden deeper and deeper into the world of the CIA. Hank Forrester is the “cautionary tale” mentor – showing Snowden what happens to an operative who goes too far in the world of international internet espionage. And finally, the “light” mentor, Lindsay Mills, shows Snowden an alternative path. I liked the variety of mentors and influences in Snowden – I give its mentors 4 out of 5 Mentor points.
Greg, we went into Snowden thinking that Oliver Stone might present a mixed picture of the man, thereby allowing audiences to decide for themselves. We were wrong in a big way. Stone clearly views Snowden as a noble and heroic whistleblower, a genius with a big heart and the perfect girlfriend. Although I would have liked to have seen the other side to the story told, I have to admit that Stone has crafted a compelling film that deserves to be watched. I give Snowden 4 Reels out of 5.
The hero’s journey here is an interesting one. Snowden is pulled into the dark world of espionage, and he can choose to thrive in this dark world or he can choose to expose it to the greater world. Doing the latter means being pulled into the even more dangerous lifestyle of a fugitive. His decision to spend his life hiding from the US government is the kind of self-sacrifice that we see only in our greatest heroes. Snowden’s journey merits a hero rating of 4 out of 5.
As we’ve mentioned, Snowden receives all the mentoring he needs to transform from a conservative pawn of the government into a liberal activist. He comes to recognize O’Brien as a dark force of influence, and he ends up heeding Forrester’s dictum that true patriots are willing to take a stand against their government. The ever-present Lindsay guides him toward the ideology needed to blow the whistle. Overall, it’s a very strong mentor story, earning the film 4 Mentor points out of 5.