It is probably impossible to watch “Snowden” without already having an opinion of the real-life person Edward Snowden. Trenches are dug deep over whether he is a patriot or a traitor. Oliver Stone’s latest film tackles the subject head on by introducing you to the man that is Edward Snowden the conservative idealist working a private sector job for the government. Visually more straightforward than Stone’s other works, he lets that narrative unfold to tell a modern tale of a whistleblower that sees his beliefs challenged and the weight of his decisions. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the title character as a dedicated genius working in national intelligence and data security with an obsessive side that will come back later on in life. Gordon-Levitt also gives him an everyman feel, a kind of low-key surface that covers the internal brain working overtime.
It’s easy to sum up the film by saying it feels like “Mister Smith Blows the Whistle on Washington.” Snowden discovers the government is overstepping its authority and data is being shared, secrets revealed, lives ruined. Gordon-Levitt’s face carries plenty of drama and conflict as he wrestles with what to do.
What Snowden did in the situation was copy files at an intelligence base in Hawaii and walk out with the data smuggled in a Rubik’s Cube. Then he was off to the press. He’s been a fugitive since that moment. There is not a great deal more drama that needs to be added to the actual story, and Stone does what he seldom, if ever, has done before: Stay out of the way of the story.
The socially awkward Snowden had a girlfriend, played by Shailene Woodley, who he pushes away to protect her from prosecution or worse. Woodley seems a bit stiff, or maybe that is the way the character is written. It’s hard to tell. Nicolas Cage takes a break from his usual crazed life to turn in a quick, brilliant performance. Tom Wilkinson also has a bit part that is fairly interesting to watch. Zachary Quinto and Melissa Leo play a pair of journalists who appear to be in the film because journalists would have to be in a film about a man uncovering a mighty big government covert action on its own people. There is also Rhys Ifans doing a solid job as Corbin O’Brian.
Much like reality, the film doesn’t tie everything up in a neat bow. It does ask the question of whether we as a people want our government knowing what do with our private life. It also asks if anything is indeed private anymore.
The film ends with interview footage of the actual Snowden. He says: “When I left Hawaii, I lost everything. I had a stable life, stable love, family, future. I lost that life but I’ve gained a new one, and I am incredibly fortunate. And I think the greatest freedom I’ve gained is that I no longer have to worry about what happens tomorrow, because I’m happy with what I’ve done today.”