If you weren’t paying attention to the news in the summer of 2013, you’d be forgiven for thinking Snowden is a cleverly writter cyber-crime thriller. But no: the film tells the story of Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the former CIA analyst who found evidence that the US government was watching people, stole it, escaped to Hong Kong and released it to Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
As such there are no spoilers – we know that Snowden left Hong Kong for Moscow, where he still lives, because returning to the US would almost certainly mean jail time. But this doesn’t make it any less exhilarating.
Split between flashbacks to how Snowden joined the CIA, met his pacifist girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), found out how the government was watching private citizens, and stole the proof, to a room at the Mira Hotel, where he meets with Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald (a brilliantly intense Zachary Quinto) and filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), who would go on to release the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour.
The scenes of Snowden’s time in the US are the most “exciting” – when he completes a five-hour assignment in 38 minutes; his realisation that a colleague at the NSA can access anyone’s webcam; his mission to transfer the evidence onto a memory card and smuggle it out of a high-security facility. But it is the claustrophobia of scenes in the Hong Kong hotel, where Greenwald, fellow Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill, Poitras and Snowden frequently disagree on how to release the information, and how to protect themselves that are the pulse of the film. They are an eye-opening indication of the decisions journalists have to make when it comes to big news stories, and how they can have to make decisions that can make their lives a living hell.
Director Oliver Stone is known for making movies that polarise audiences; they are often about controversial figures (Richard Nixon in Nixon) or events (the Vietnam War in Platoon). Even if you think Snowden was totally wrong in what he did, or if you don’t even think you have any interest in the right to privacy, government conspiracy theories, or hackers, Snowden is worth watching for the powerful portrayal of the characters. Gordon-Levitt in particular is mesmerising to watch; you forget completely his smooth-talking, “cheeky chappy” persona (for the ultimate example, see his performance on Jimmy Fallon’s Lip Sync Battle), and completely buy into his transformation from socially awkward computer genius devoted to his nation, to a crusader willing to take on the might of the American government.
Added to all this are some excellent shots of Hong Kong, which almost always makes a film worth seeing.
Contains occasional strong language