Wherever you find government cover-ups or conspiracies about government cover-ups, you’ll find Oliver Stone, and the case of Edward Snowden is right in his wheelhouse.

Is Snowden a whistle blower who uncovered illegal government activity that threatened the security and privacy of American citizens? Or is he a domestic terrorist whose decision to make public a top secret surveillance program threatened the security and privacy of American citizens? Can he be both at the same time?

The movie is framed around Snowden’s secret meeting with documentary filmmaker 4 starsLaura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald in a Hong Kong hotel room to provide classified information about a mass surveillance program conducted by the NSA. Snowden claims the program gives the US government access to basically any form of communication happening on the internet, even that of private citizens, without having a warrant to obtain that information.

Greenwald is working to break the story in mainstream media with his newspaper editors back in London. Poitras is filming what would become the documentary CitizenFour–which won the Oscar for best documentary feature at the Oscars last year.

To tell the story of how Snowden obtained this information, Stone goes back only as far as his application to work for the CIA. Snowden impresses his superiors and quickly demonstrates his ability to work with computer programs and solve complex problems easily. It’s a wise choice to show us only Snowden’s time working in government. Thankfully, we don’t get awkward childhood backstory or flashbacks trying to get to the root of what kind of man he is (as Stone did in, say, Nixon).

The movie clocks in at over two hours, but it moves along very well. The hotel interview with Poitras and Greenwald serves as an effective framing device to shift smoothly to pertinent scenes.

Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Snowden doesn’t look much different than Joseph Gordon Levitt, except with some glasses and sometimes stubble. Maybe it’s how he really nails Snowden’s voice, but there are times when you forget you’re watching an actor.

Shailene Woodley plays Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, and she does a great job of striking the balance between wide-eyed, playful, hopeful romantic interest and increasingly frustrated, hurt and jaded by Snowden constantly putting his job–and eventually his principles–first.

There are some excellent supporting performances from Mellisa Leo as Poitras, Zachary Quinto as Greenwald, and Timothy Oliphant as one of Snowden’s colleagues. There are also smaller appearances from Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson and Tom Wilkinson.

There’s a great visual toward the end of the movie when Snowden speaks to his former boss on a video call. He stands in front of a giant screen and his boss’s head takes up the whole wall. It’s an obvious visual allusion to Big Brother from 1984, but it’s effective. It probably has no basis in reality, and the call itself probably never even happened.  But that’s what you get with Oliver Stone. He will manipulate the context and even the facts to present an artistic interpretation, and you know that going into the movie.

And you leave with the one complaint you expect to have. The perfectly valid, reasonable argument for why Snowden may be wrong is barely touched on. Include a reasonable character with a compelling opposing viewpoint, and this could have been a great movie.

I admit I’m an unapologetic Oliver Stone fan, but I really think this is his best movie in years. From the subject matter, the unmistakable, principled thrust of the narrative, and how the story is told, it’s all classic Oliver Stone.


Title Snowden
Director Oliver Stone
Writer Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone
Runtime 134 min
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo
Production Endgame Entertainment, Vendian Entertainment, KrautPack Entertainment