History is populated with heroes and with traitors, and “Snowden” (directed by Oliver Stone) aims to tell the story of a man considered both.
The film begins with a hotel room meeting between journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), videographer Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the young Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the kind of modern-day geek who wears large-rimmed glasses and carries a Rubik’s cube with him everywhere. Once the room is secured and their phones are placed in the microwave (to block UHF frequencies), Snowden tells them his story. The film uses this conversations as the anchor point for the rest of the film, weaving in the stories of his personal life and the discovery he makes.
Moved by the events of September 11th, Snowden joins the army. But when stress fractures in his legs force him from special forces training, Snowden turns to working for the CIA. Under the unsettling wing of Corbin O’Brian (Rhus Ifans) he quickly distinguishes himself as both idealistic and exceedingly bright. Here he also meets Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage), a once great designer of a data-crawling system that has now been designated to messing with old code machines in a dusty corner of the building. Snowden quickly learns the nature of the game, from secret courts granting questionable surveillance warrants to an operative destroying a banker’s personal life so that he would cooperate with the CIA.
Snowden meets Gabriel Sol (Ben Schnetzer), an image of the typical laid-back hacker who shows him xkeyscore, an NSA program that allows access to nearly everything online about any person including emails, facebook messages, documents, and phone calls. It’s in scenes like that Gordon-Levitt’s performance shines through as a young man who dreams of serving his country and doing what he believes to be right. He’s defined by his reserved confidence and self-assurance, but Gordon-Levitt skillfully expresses the conflict and unease underneath. As he learns more of the illicit activities of the government, his confusion turns to realization and when he figures out the true implications of the program, his voice and expression show his dawning understanding that what he is seeing is really as powerful, and perhaps as wrong, as he thinks.
Developing alongside his work is his relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). Their chemistry falters at points, but they both come across as real characters who care for each others. Woodley establishes her character as an individual with her own perspective and needs. She’s a loving girlfriend, but we can feel the strain within her when Snowden can’t explain the classified reasons for his behaviors (such as covering the webcam of her computer because of the “Russian hackers”). As Snowden’s work takes him around the world from Tokyo to Hawaii, Lindsay is dragged along, and stress and secrecy replaces the comfortable life they once had. In a cinematic landscape where nearly every film throws in a romance to remain “interesting”, Snowden’s relationship with Mills is refreshingly important, both driving his decisions and expressing the more human side of his character.
As the plot moves toward the hotel room meeting it takes its time. Stone wants us to know the full background, from Snowden’s work to the rises and falls of his relationship. He primarily wants to show us who Snowden is — a sharp and motivated young man who, though perhaps a little disillusioned, is a true patriot. Stone attempts to provide a clear answer to the question of hero or traitor, painting him as the model American who is willing to sacrifice everything for the good of the American people. The plot serves as a tool reveal Snowden’s character, but this robs it of some of the tension expected of such a story of secrecy and espionage. O’Brian becomes the primary antagonist, but it seems like he only serves to be a tangible thing to point to as the “enemy”. There’s no one Snowden is specifically against beyond the loose idea of “the government”. But the film is still engaging, and Stone manages to make it into a story we care about, and a hero we can root for.
If you’re looking for a factual analysis of Edward Snowden’s story, there’s a bounty of information online or in other films such as “Citizenfour.” Instead, “Snowden” provides a digestible and human look into the actions of Edward Snowden. He’s portrayed as someone we can all cheer for — a brilliant dreamer who does what he believes is right. Whether you agree with him is up to you.
Matthew Shinkle is a sophomore psychology major and an Arts and Entertainment writer for Cedars. He likes pizza and those rectangle things with the plastic pins that make an impression of your hand.