Oliver Stone’s latest iconoclastic biopic, Snowden, is a stunning exploration of personal liberties, journalistic integrity, and demonization of the whistleblower. Stone minces no words and makes his position clear: for revealing the extent to which the US government was spying on its own citizenry at great personal risk, Edward Snowden is a hero. Hence, Stone is primarily occupied with humanizing Snowden, and his casting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a step in the right direction. The film also exploits a parallel narrative structure to simultaneously tell the story of his life and the few days when he provided classified information to journalists in a Hong Kong hotel room. The result is a film which brilliantly characterizes Edward Snowden, his changing worldview, and the choices that made him infamous.
Any discussion of Snowden has to begin with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Though I’ve heard that many have issues with the voice he uses to impersonate the real Ed Snowden, I wasn’t bothered at all. Snowden has a distinct way of talking and a sound to his voice, so it makes sense to me that Gordon-Levitt would appropriate this for his performance. And, if this is your one critique of the performance, you’re in the neighborhood of the nit pick. Everything else Gordon-Levitt does is fantastic. He uses his eyes and face in subtle ways to portray the genius of Snowden, but also lets you feel his trepidation as he learns more and more about the USA’s surveillance powers (and their misuse). Finally, a crucial aspect of the film involves his romantic relationship with girlfriend Lindsey Mills (Shailene Woodley). The two have notable chemistry, and Gordon-Levitt is capable of showcasing both the romantic highs and despondent lows of a roller coaster relationship.
Shailene Woodley, most-known for her starring role as Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars, is an absolute treasure as Lindsey. She is perfection from the moment she appears on screen for a date with Snowden, all the way to the climax of the film as she watches him give an interview on television about his revelations. More importantly, Oliver Stone positions her character as the inspirational force for Snowden’s eventual choices. Stone accomplishes this through a few careful details, the most evident being a ver batim recitation of one of Lindsey’s earlier lines by Snowden late in the film. It isn’t as blatant as the tired “behind every great man” trope, though. It is more realistic and gradual, as two people in a long-term romantic relationship learn from each other and grow. This is not to say that Ed and Lindsey have a cheery dream life. In fact, Woodley’s ability to portray the hurt that results from Snowden’s work environment (which he must keep secret from her) is one of her chief accomplishments in this role.
As previously mentioned, the plot of Snowden is non-linear, but just barely. It is actually a kind of dual-linear construction, with two separate linear stories that eventually meet up in the third act of the film. One of these threads takes Ed Snowden from 2004-2013, and details his experiences with the army, his career in the intelligence community, and his relationship with Lindsey. The other details only the short time he spent discussing the information he had taken from the NSA with some journalists. This second portion is essentially the topic of the documentary Citizenfour. But because Stone includes so much more information, all of which deals with Snowden himself, he is able to distinguish his film from the documentary. This structure also helps to inject more excitement into the narrative, as we are not only treated to Snowden’ jarring revelations in the hotel, but we get to see him experience learning this information firsthand.
It bears reiteration: The romance between Ed and Lindsey is the driving force behind this film. Ed improves as a person because of her, and concludes that he cannot sit idly by as the US government unleashes the full power of its surveillance system. It is fascinating to consider Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal of the “character” of Snowden, because he is a real person – and an incredibly notorious one. But, one gets a clear sense that Stone is a great admirer of the man’s abilities and values, and likely considers him an outright American hero. This is why, in a turn of absolute brilliance, Stone casts the real Edward Snowden in the film’s concluding sequence.
That’s right – Edward Snowden plays himself at the very end of the film. Surprisingly, he is a solid actor, as his line reads aren’t hollow or wooden. This choice is a masterstroke by Oliver Stone. Throughout the whole film, the audience is conceptually aware that the events onscreen actually occurred, and through Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal of Ed Snowden we begin to identify with the character absent any infamy. But, by switching out the actor for the real person at the conclusion, we get something marvelous: a real-life reminder that these events happened in our reality, not some fantastic dystopia on film. This surveillance is real. It is happening to you, right now as you visit this website to read this piece. And it charges you to recognize the heroism of Edward Snowden and do something to curtail the magnificent and enraging abuse of power that he revealed.