Snowden Plot Summary:
Based on the true story of NSA employee Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and how he leaked classified information to the press that detailed the use of illegal surveillance techniques. Covers the events between 2004-2013, highlighting Snowden’s rise through the NSA and CIA, and how he obtained the classified documents at great risk.
If one of the goals of a movie based on true events is to give you the drive to learn more about the actual event, than director Oliver Stone has succeeded. In truth, all the technology shenanigans are hard to follow, which is something they actually make reference to in the film. At the end of the day though, this is a movie. It’s a dramatization. It has to work as a movie. Snowden works. It works in spades. When director Oliver Stone is involved, it’s always a crap shoot. You could get something amazing, but you could also get a sloppy mess. The fact that this was delayed almost a full year gave credence to the mess theory. Where most were optimistic though was in the stacked cast. Unlike Hail, Caesar! earlier this year, all the big name cast members actually serve a purpose. They don’t just show up for one frame, wave hello, and walk out. This cast is outstanding.
We’re off to a great start when we’re introduced to Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), the filmmaker who documents the reveal, and Zachary Quinto, the fiery Guardian reporter who blows the story wide open. Zachary Quinto is an actor we need to see more of. Sure, we love him as Spock, but he’s a damn good actor. He plays the prototypical passionate news reporter, ala Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight. One of my favorite moments is when he completely loses his top at his higher ups at the mere thought they might hesitate on posting the story. He’s perfectly balanced by the older, level-headed Perry White type, played by Tom Wilkinson. He’s in that Michael Caine/Morgan Freeman category: actors you always appreciate when they pop up.
Snowden’s NSA employees are also equally fascinating. Rhys Ifans is extraordinarily complex as Snowden’s mentor/boss, Corbin O’Brian. At first you like him and appreciate the bond he has with Snowden. As the movie goes on, you slowly realize his true colors. Stone goes a little over the top, shoving the Big Brother comparisons in your face, but Ifans nails it. Ben Schnetzer also has a nice role as Snowden’s buddy/co-worker. He’s that overzealous tech geek who gets all tingly over his classified search engines. As a niche actor, Timothy Olyphant does not disappoint, playing a real slime bag who almost can’t stop grinning. While Nicolas Cage doesn’t have a huge role, he makes his presence known, including one fantastic scene between him and Snowden. Nicolas Cage is very much like Tom Cruise. His talent is underappreciated just because he goes a little bonkers at times.
The man who drives this film is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who may give the best performance of his career. He was tailor made for this role. You get plenty of great “Good Will Hunting” moments where we see how smart he is. Where Levitt is most captivating are the subtle ticks you notice when he feels more and more uncomfortable with what he’s involved in. That’s the true heartbeat of the film. It’s watching Snowden became rattled by this avalanche of morally grey situations. Stone wisely cuts back and lets Levitt’s subtlety tell us everything we need to know. The focus on his personal relationship with Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley, is also effective. The two have a great chemistry, as well as some real nasty, biting moments. Levitt gives an Oscar worthy performance, but I suspect it will be buried come nomination time.
As good as the cast is, Oliver Stone deserves his props. To take a story about technology surveillance and keep it accessible and engaging for over two hours is impressive. There were slow moments to be sure, but they are far and few between. And as this is an Oliver Stone film, he tends to get a little preachy/heavy handed, but it’s slimmed down. You do get the classic Government Vs. Liberal Media debate that’s shoved in your face. Stone definitely adds a great touch here, most notably a sequence that accurately depicts the cesspool and dangers of the internet. Much like you fear the water after Jaws, or how The Blair Witch Project makes you afraid of the woods, Snowden will do the same when you log on to your computer.
Snowden is the tense, high octane movie you want it to be. It’s spearheaded by a great cast, and a master director at the top of his craft. Some of Stone’s weaknesses sadly get in the way at the end, when he blends too much reality in the last ten minutes. He gets a little too Oliver Stone. Despite a mishandled climax, this is definitely the movie I was hoping it would be.
Rating: 8 out of 10 (Great)
Daniel Cohen is the Film Editor for Pop-Break. Aside from reviews, Daniel does a weekly box office predictions column, and also contributes monthly Top Tens and Op-Ed’s on all things film. Daniel is a graduate of Bates College with a degree in English, and also studied Screenwriting at UCLA. He can also be read on www.movieshenanigans.com. His movie crush is Jessica Rabbit. Follow him on Twitter @dcohenwriter.