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Movie Review: Snowden delivers engaging performances

Oliver Stone’s new biopic Snowden covers about 10 years of Edward Snowden’s life, and depicts the major life experiences that led him to leak confidential files belonging to the NSA. The film is set in 2013 in a Hong Kong hotel, where Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) tells Guardian reporters Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) as well as documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) how he obtained secret NSA files, eventually giving them copies of the information.

Most of the film is spent in his memories. Viewers see that Snowden joined the Special Forces as a young man, but due to health reasons, he leaves to begin working for the CIA. He meets his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), over the internet and they quickly fall in love. She moves with him when he is stationed in Switzerland, Japan, and Hawaii. 

As he travels to new places, works his way up the ranks in the CIA and digs deeper into intelligence, Snowden progressively becomes more concerned with the amount and types of information he can easily obtain and how the government is using this information. His discomfort and paranoia increases until he decides to copy incriminating evidence of the NSA’s prying onto a microSD card and turn it over to the media. From there, Stone depicts the aftermath of Snowden’s whistleblowing through clips of politicians such as President Obama and news organization like CNN and The Guardian. This film depicts the person behind all of the media coverage in 2013.

Some of the best acting in this movie comes from Woodley, who plays Snowden’s long-term girlfriend. Her character’s relationship with Ed, as she calls him, is a believable, grounding force in the film. She acts as a supportive and loving partner to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Snowden, making up for his lack of emotion in some moments with her own charisma. In addition, there is one major emotional fight between the two during the film, during which she further convinces the audience of her stress and frustration concerning Snowden’s secrecy and paranoia about work. 

The relationship between Woodley and Gordon-Levitt is realistic, an important characteristic in a tech-oriented movie. Their dedication to each other adds a much needed humanity to this film. It shows the viewer a warm side of Snowden, who would otherwise be seen only as stressed, paranoid, and emotionally cold.

Another great element of this movie is the graphic sequence when Snowden describes how everyone is tracked by the NSA. Not only are terrorists tracked, but all of his or her contacts are tracked, leading to a web of unknowing people being tracked in the name of the law. Snowden narrates a moving 3-D diagram that is reminiscent of the intro sequences of Spider Man or Fight Club, except that connected to the web are pictures of supposedly ordinary American citizens. If each of the people tracked had 40 contacts–by three degrees of separation–there would be about 2.5 million people involved.

Director Oliver Stone incorporates humor into his film, sometimes with loving moments between Snowden and Mills, and other times with dark humor. For example, when Snowden and Mills are attending a barbeque with Snowden’s coworkers, Snowden’s superior comments in response to another coworker that the NSA is doing good work because they work for the government. Snowden immediately chimes in with a comment about the Nuremberg Trials that hits close to home, given that the trials involved cogs-in-the-wheel people being prosecuted for their actions.

While I enjoyed this film, there were a few parts that were lacking. Nicolas Cage tries to play Hank Forrester, an NSA employee and mentor, but fails to keep a consistent accent throughout the film, much less prove to the viewer why his character is necessary to the film at all. He doesn’t seem to move the plot forward except to introduce Snowden to Rubik’s Cubes, and that was only shown for a brief moment.

The other major issue I had with this movie were the files that Snowden downloaded off of the computer at the NSA agency in Hawaii. While the film portrays Snowden as copying all of the files and then making a run for Hong Kong the next day, in reality he downloaded these files for months before he left. Additionally, the files in the film had ridiculously incriminating titles such as “False Testimonies.” I’m under the impression that the NSA wouldn’t be so egotistical as to think it would be safe with a file of that title in its system.

But overall the film is interesting and engaging. Nearly all of the actors gave very moving performances that humanized a man who has been called both a patriot and a traitor. Whether or not viewers think Snowden did the right thing in his quest to become a whistle blower, there is a clear justification for his actions through the lens of this film. 

Grade: A-

thescene@theeagleonline.com


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