Classic Review: Snowden (2016)

Since I’ve started this site, I’ve written a lot of reviews. In case you missed some of my earlier ones, I would like to share an older review of “Snowden” which originally appeared here.

Disillusioned with the intelligence community, top contractor Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) leaves his job at the National Security Agency. He now knows that a virtual mountain of data is being assembled to track all forms of digital communication, not just from foreign governments and terrorist groups, but from ordinary Americans. When Snowden decides to leak this classified information, he becomes a traitor to some, a hero to others and a fugitive from the law.

This a big one. Everybody knows the story of Edward Snowden, the man who leaked a boatload of data which exposed the NSA’s secret surveillance program. Some people, however, may not know about his life and/or the events leading up to him doing what he did. It is kind of amazing how quickly a film was made about him considering how recent this all was. I will say that I haven’t seen the documentary that was made about Snowden called Citizenfour but I’m pretty sure that it probably did a better job covering Snowden than this one did and that’s okay.

The story was told in a non-linear fashion in that the film stars long after Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) has already leaked the data and is now in hiding in Hong Kong. There he meets a pair of journalists named Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), along with a documentary filmmaker named Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo). He tells them his story while they interview him in order to determine the validity of his claims.

Here we learn about how he got to where he was now, going from Special Forces, to the CIA, then to the NSA, and then finally ending up as a private contractor. Snowden was a gifted individual, excelling at every stage of his short-lived career. This allowed him to rise through the ranks rather quickly. He was a very ambitious person who wanted to serve his country in whatever way he could. This ambition along with his dedication for his country kept pushing him to keep going, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).

She and Snowden met online and immediately hit it off. Despite their opposite political views, she still stood by him as they constantly had to uproot their lives due to Snowden’s many assignments. They may have started off as opposites but over time, she started to bring him to her side. Just like every relationship, they had their ups and downs as the fact that he couldn’t talk about his work and the paranoia that it brought. As the film went on, they grew further and further apart as he kept choosing his love of country over her. Even with this, she continued to stand by him. Their chemistry made them fun to watch which made their relationship more believable.

Watching him move up the ranks was great while under the tutelage of a man named Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). He was a cold, mysterious person who seemed to represent the darker side of government where he was willing to sacrifice people’s privacy in order to make them more secure. This thought pretty much set the tone for the rest of the film. He later became Snowden’s first boss. Snowden’s work took him all around the world, from Geneva, to Japan, and Hawaii.

Even though he loved his country, Snowden still started to question this when what he saw and what he was doing may or may not have been legal. Whether or not the illegal activity was depicted accurately, it still gives a good idea as to what was happening. He dismisses this at first, thinking that things would get better but they don’t. This leads Snowden to take matters into his own hands once he copies a series of files from the NSA and decides to meet up with Greenwald, MacAskill, and Poitras in order to share this information with the rest of the world.

The main problem with the film was that it was void of any action or excitement whatsoever. Even though we all already know what happened, it should have been more exciting than what it was. The film covered his personal life, his work life, and his fugitive life which was fine. The problem with this was that it felt like it focused more on his personal life than the other two. Seeing his personal life was okay but it was rather slow. The film should have went further with his work life and fugitive life as these are what led him to become who he was. Again, we already knew what was going to happen but the film poorly established Snowden’s inner conflict, the one that made him question what he was doing. His fugitive life lacked any suspense whatsoever as there was no sense of danger.

The acting here was excellent all around with Gordon-Levitt standing out in his performance as Snowden. Although his accent was a cause of concern at first, he avoided impersonating Snowden and simply became him. He was very likable and relatable here. He was human in that wasn’t perfect, making many mistakes along the way. He showed a considerable amount of vulnerability here which made him compelling and believable. Woodley was excellent as she primarily served to show us the evolution of Snowden. Ifans was excellent as the sinister O’Brian and Quinto, Leo, and Wilkinson were good, albeit underused.

Overall, this was good but shallow thriller elevated by an excellent performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Score: 7.5/10

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