Snowden [2016]: Movie Review

Snowden is a politically-charged, 21st century biopic that invites viewers to learn about the enigmatic Edward Snowden. But the film excels more in prompting deeper exploration into morals, supererogation, and ultimately action. 

Dir. Oliver Stone

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Tom Wilkinson, Rhys Ifans, Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Nicolas Cage



If absolute power corrupts absolutely, then the powers-that-be would surely label that deleterious morning in June 2013 a blemish.

On the morning in question, The Guardian brought to light thousands of leaked NSA documents. Included was the revelation that the NSA, in cahoots with major tech companies, had been spying on millions of honest, hard working Americans.

The world then learnt that these uncomfortable truths had been leaked by computer whiz and CIA/NSA operative-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden. We have since heard a lot more about him. Yet, due to skewed reporting from the media, much about Snowden remains apocryphal. This movie aims to set the record straight.

Snowden switches between the fraught days leading up to the release of the documents, when journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill met Snowden in an upmarket Hong Kong hotel room to manage the information exchange, and an origin story that chronicles the personal and political evolution of Edward Snowden himself.

While his backstory traverses the globe – Washington DC, Switzerland, Japan and Hawaii all included –  it’s the hotel scenes that add urgency, a faster pace, and create a nice balance. These are recreated using the footage from Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ 2014 documentary that chronicles her meetings with Snowden in Hong Kong.


Oliver Stone has never shied away from mixing his personal beliefs with his directing, and as such, he is the obvious, safest and arguably most competent director for handling such sensitive issues.

Intent on doing the story justice, Stone flew to Russia and met with Snowden personally, learning how complex, patriotic and cerebral Snowden really is. Suffice to say, Stone returned to America excited at the prospect of developing these elements into a revelatory and entertaining film.

Much like the dolls made famous in his adoptive country, Edward Snowden is full of layers and facets, which Joseph Gordon Levitt portrays well. He simultaneously channels his Dark Knight trilogy quiet determination with his 500 Days of Summer nerdy romanticism.

Snowden’s relationship with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) is prominent throughout, an area Stone saw as key to understanding the man at the heart of it all. “The press overlooked how much she matters to him. It’s as if she keeps him human,” Stone says.

This decision is warranted and it certainly helps to stylize some fairly dry material. Woodley is great in the role, especially the inner turmoil she depicts as her loyalty to Snowden, following him around the world, begins to threaten her fledging career.

But the chemistry between Woodley and Gordon-Levitt doesn’t always work. One argument in Tokyo in particular falls a bit flat, lacking that eruption of tension so familiar in long-term relationships. What’s more, it’s a little hard to focus on the love story when Snowden is uncovering something much larger in scale than the whims of young lovers.


Like many films that deal in ethical overtures, Snowden also fails to fully develop a few key philosophical issues, scratching the surface without delving too deep.  In one scene, Snowden rails against illegal spying methods to Lindsay, who responds, “Why should I care? I’ve got nothing to hide.”

But this neoliberal mentality, this attitude that disregards those who may have something to hide (dissidents, activists, journalists, politicians, bankers) is never explored. Instead we are left with Snowden shaking his head.

Other supporting cast members include Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill, Mr. Nobody), who plays Snowden’s CIA employer with swagger and Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson, who play the journalists; they capture the tension in that hotel room aptly.

Meanwhile, Nicolas Cage gets one of the shortest Mr. Miyagi mentorship roles in cinematic history. He portrays the stubborn idealist still working within the system, yet he is reduced to two redundant encounters and an inclusion in the climactic montage.

Ultimately, Snowden is more than just an entertaining refresher. It’s designed to make you paranoid (it’ll change the way you see webcams forever) and to remind you of the malfeasance that continues with unabashed fervency.

With the subject matter still fresh in our minds, the film is best seen for its emphasis on privacy, surveillance and freedom of information, and for encouraging action, dialog, challenging the status quo and whistleblowing.

If it’ll have this effect remains to be seen. Now biding his time in Russia, the next chapter of Edward Snowden’s life is still unfolding. Only time will tell whether the sequel will be Snowden II: From Russia with Love, Snowden: Homeward Bound, Snowden: The Empire Strikes Back, S’NOW-or-neverDEN, Team Edward (Snowden)

Whatever it ends up being called, let’s hope it’s an ensemble. Because the real beauty is: you can help decide what cliched title they give it; you can choose who stars in it; you might even be able to dictate the narrative. All you have to do is drink the cool-aid. Tune in, drop out, turn on…maybe that’s our title right there.

Snowden opens in Australian cinemas on September 22. 


Many thanks to Kate Nelson (Meetoo) for enabling me to see this film early. I really appreciate it. Suffice to say, I couldn’t have done it without you. 

Still haven’t sated your movie fix? Check out Sam and Bee’s respective Top 10 film lists! Or click here for some sweet wintry tunes

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