Movie Review: Snowden


Citizenfour is an outstanding Academy Award winning documentary about Edward Snowden, but Oliver Stone’s feature film Snowden is just as informative and far more entertaining. Snowden tells the story of former CIA employee and United States government contractor who exposed top-secret information about the National Security Agency (NSA). Could the man that directed such hit political thrillers as JFK and Nixon come through again in Snowden? He does, and in a big way.

On the surface, the Snowden story is a perfect documentary film, or a TV news show special but to make it an exciting feature film thriller is an impressive feat. Stone manages to craft a thrilling and suspenseful story about a guy who is mainly entering keystrokes on a computer keyboard. The visual style he incorporates adds a modern “techy” atmosphere to the movie. For example, instead of just having the characters spew out some computer jargon, the on-screen visuals map out the dialogue with neat and easy to understand explanations of what’s being talked about.

Credit goes to the outstanding performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who transforms himself into Snowden. Gordon-Levitt’s voice, mannerisms and look are as spot-on as possible. He nails Snowden’s complex persona. Gordon-Levitt does great work depicting the shy, awkward, uncomfortable and charming sides of him, and it’s one of the better performances of the year. Shailene Woodley plays Snowden’s on-and-off girlfriend Lindsay Mills. Woodley provides a distinct contrast and balance between her and Gordon-Levitt’s performances. She has a lot of spunk and personality and constantly challenges Snowden. There are some nicely cast small supporting roles played by Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto and Scott Eastwood.

Snowden is a suspenseful film that has us engaged from start to finish. It certainly helps if you don’t fully know the story, but even if you do, the film offers exciting wrinkles throughout. Every time you think Snowden is out of the game, he’s reeled back in. The relationship between Snowden and Mills is interesting with their tumultuos nature and also functions by fully contributing to the plot and Snowdens motivation. There isn’t much stimulating immediate action in the movie, but the cleverly written script and fabulous execution by Stone and his actors keep the plot moving swiftly. The hotel room scenes where the The Guardian reporters are interviewing Snowden could have easily fell flat, but they are very compelling due to the feel of outside fear and the magnitude of the situation.

Sure, at times you can lose track of what’s actually going on: what is Snowden even working on? He moves around so much, it’s hard to keep up with all his jobs and continents he’s living on. There is a conscious focus from the filmmakers on not confusing the audience by describing the missions and their ramifications through comparisons with relatable content. For example, the process of the keyword “Quarry” search the NSA relies on, is compared to and explained as a “Google” search on people’s lives. It’s these anecdotes that make it simple enough for most viewers to grasp the main concepts discussed, without having to be a techie.

Snowden is one of the most socially relevant movies of the year. Its slick presentation combined with a great performance from Gordon-Levitt makes this one of the more intriguing films of the year. People will surely compare this to Stone’s previous work. Some might like it, others might criticize it. What can’t be overlooked is that for the current times we are living in, it’s a very appealing and informative movie. There is no denying that Snowden is painted as a hero and ultimate patriot. It’s a one-sided take, but a take that is validated by the storytelling and the end result of his work. This is a story of a fascinating individual, love him or hate him, that did expose the shady sides of the government.

We are living in an age where the consumption of computers, social media and cell phones are intricate components of our everyday lives. What Snowden exposes is the government’s use of it in safeguarding and spying on the public. He may be considered a patriot, whistleblower or hacker, which is something you can ultimately decide on, even though the movie skews it clearly and unapologetically in favor of Snowden. What you undeniably will come away with is being more careful and aware of the way you consume personal media. After seeing this eye-opening film, how can we ever look into a computer camera the same way?

RATING: 9/10

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Jim Alexander is one of the co-founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle (CIFCC). He has been a staff writer at since 2014. He helped develop and host the “Correct Opinion Podcast.” Jim has written for and contributed to the Australian movie site He is the United States Film and Entertainment Reporter for BBC’s 5 Live radio show. In addition to his interest in film, he also hosts the “Bachelor Universe” blog and podcast, centered on the ABC show The Bachelor. Jim graduated with a MA in Journalism from DePaul University. He is a die-hard Chicago Bulls and Bears fan. Born in Chicago, but raised in Poland, he grew up playing soccer and remains an avid fan of the sport. He is passionate about film and strives to incorporate new and innovative ways to present film criticism. He currently resides in a suburb outside of Chicago, IL.