“Is Edward Snowden an American hero or a traitor?” may be the question at the center of discussions on Edward Snowden’s actions, but that is not the question at the center of Oliver Stone’s film, Snowden. Stone’s dramatized biopic, which was widely released this weekend, opens with the premise that the titular character falls much more solidly on the hero side of the spectrum. For those unfamiliar with his name, Snowden gained international infamy in 2013 when he leaked classified National Security Agency (NSA) secrets to the press, beginning with the UK-based newspaper, The Guardian. In the intervening years, the debate over whether his actions were selfless heroism or dangerous and traitorous have permeated discussions of Snowden and his actions, also sparking new legislative approaches to public disclosure of intelligence and increasing scrutiny of intelligence agencies.
In beginning with the aforementioned premise that Snowden, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is indeed a heroic figure who provided American citizens with information they deserved to have, the film moves to showcase the evidence for this understanding, working to humanize the individual outside of his actions and to portray Snowden as an All-American patriot. Gordon-Levitt plays Snowden with a deeper, more monotone voice than his typical roles, emphasizing the slightly socially-awkward quirkiness Snowden has often been characterized as having. This persona further works to create a sense of empathy in the audience, compelling them to see the situation from his perspective.
A majority of the film’s plot plays out in the episodes of Snowden’s life which led to his decision to leak the secrets, flashing back from the days leading up to The Guardian’s breakthrough publication. The very first flashback scene opens with a line of U.S. Army Special Forces troops in military training running towards the camera, silhouetted by the sunlight behind them, complete with patriotic music filling the soundtrack. Snowden utilizes these sound and lighting effects at several moments, including the moment when Snowden steals the NSA information, which shows him walking into white light into which he fades, playing into the film’s perspective of Snowden’s actions.
Although it is clearly stated at the beginning of the film that Snowden is a dramatization of true events, another interesting facet of the film is its invocation of verisimilitude by using real-life news clips of the events, especially near the film’s end. In other critical moments, the camera style is changed to continue this feeling, making the footage seem as though it is from a news camera, when in reality it is not.
While some of these effects help to enliven a somewhat ponderous subject matter, Snowden still lacks a sense of urgency in some scenes that perhaps should have had more. The scenes which are supposed to build suspense end up being less exciting than some of the casual conversations or epiphany moments.
The film also spends a decent amount of time developing Snowden’s personal relationships, especially his relationship with his longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley. One of the film’s major problems is in developing Woodley’s character. In efforts to use her to develop Snowden, her own characterization falls relatively flat. Over all, the characters outside of Snowden seem to be there simply to move his plot along and humanize him. However, perhaps even more than humanizing Snowden, the supporting characters work to develop Snowden’s ideology, delivering key lines when imparting wisdom that help move him along his trajectory.
In his first interview with the CIA, Snowden is asked by recruiter and instructor Corbin O’Brian, played by Rhys Ifans, why he was compelled to join the Special Forces. Snowden responds that he identified with their motto, “De oppresso liber,” which is translated to “To free the oppressed,” an obvious foreshadowing of how Snowden will later justify his actions. These engaging and sometimes clever character moments balanced some of Snowden’s narrative faults.
As it begins with the assumption that Snowden’s actions were heroic, Snowden likely won’t convince anyone who does not already buy into that idea to change their mind, though it does force audiences to consider him as a person beyond outside of his controversial actions. While otherwise it does not contain much more information than the Academy Award-winning 2014 documentary about Snowden, Citizenfour, Snowden presents an alternative format with a more character-driven plot which may be more accessible to wider audiences. Although it may not be the most necessary biopic, it does present further commentary on freedom of information and privacy in a time when these subjects have become increasingly more relevant.