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Snowden Movie Review

Snowden Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD combo pack cover art
Snowden is now available on home video. Read our review of the Blu-ray + DVD combo.

Snowden (2016) movie poster Snowden

Theatrical Release: September 13, 2016 / Running Time: 134 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Oliver Stone / Writers: Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone (screenplay); Anatoly Kucherena (book Time of the Octopus), Luke Harding (book The Snowden Files)

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Edward J. Snowden), Shailene Woodley (Lindsay Mills), Melissa Leo (Laura Poitras), Zachary Quinto (Glenn Greenwald), Tom Wilkinson (Ewen MacAskill), Scott Eastwood (Trevor James), Logan Marshall-Green (Male Drone Pilot), Timothy Olyphant (CIA Agent Geneva), Ben Schnetzer (Gabriel Sol), LaKeith Lee Stanfield (Patrick Haynes), Bhasker Patel (Marwan Al-Kirmani), Joely Richardson (Janine Gibson), Ben Chaplin (Robert Tibbo), Rhys Ifans (Corbin O'Brian), Nicolas Cage (Hank Forrester), Edward Snowden (Himself)

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The story of CIA agent turned whistleblower Edward Snowden has been told in a variety of mediums including Laura Poitras' effective Citizenfour, 2014's Oscar winner for Best Feature Documentary.
Is there enough to Snowden's tale to lend to a narrative film dramatizing it? At least one filmmaker thought so: Oliver Stone, a director famous for his outspoken politics, interest in current affairs, and belief in conspiracies.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt assumes the title role of Snowden, a film that explores the young man's life between 2004 and his news-making 2013 leak to journalists of classified intelligence documents. Gordon-Levitt impressively adopts and commits to a deeper voice that closely resembles that of the real Snowden. The necessity of that choice is easy to question, but Gordon-Levitt proves himself up to that vocal challenge, a year after skillfully portraying French tightrope walker Philippe Petit in Robert Zemeckis' underappreciated The Walk.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays CIA agent and whistleblower Edward Snowden in Oliver Stone's "Snowden."

After being dismissed from military training due to a freak accident, Snowden, an extremely intelligent high school dropout, applies to the CIA and is narrowly accepted by Corbin O'Brian (an uncharacteristically imposing Rhys Ifans), who becomes his principal instructor and mentor there. Snowden wows O'Brian and his peers by completing his first test, which has an average completion time of 5 hours, in just 38 minutes.

In the course of his work at the agency, Snowden is soon exposed to the eye-opening access the government has to the lives and connections of not just suspected terrorists but ordinary American citizens. Among his missions is to find a vulnerable banker and disrupt his life to serve the agency's means. Along the way, Snowden meets photographer and pole dancer Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), who quickly figures out his occupation and becomes a serious girlfriend to whom he cannot disclose the nature of his work.

Snowden's experiences in intelligence breed some understandable paranoia in him, as he places tape over the easily hijacked webcam on Lindsay's computer and begins to fear his home is bugged. The film bounces between Snowden's work and the principal setting of Citizenfour, the Hong Kong hotel room where in a white t-shirt he opens up to Poitras (played by Melissa Leo), American journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), and Scottish Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson).

Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) shares classified information with hand-picked journalists Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), and Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto).

Snowden is long and a tad meandering. His story fascinates more than that of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, which was dramatized in the Benedict Cumberbatch flop The Fifth Estate, but less than Mark Zuckerberg, whose life became the gold standard of modern biopics in David Fincher's outstanding The Social Network. Stone and his co-screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald (The Homesman) paint a complex portrait of their hero without ever once showing his family or upbringing.
They do not do the best job of making us understand why Snowden essentially throws his life away to expose the extent of government surveillance, though it at least makes the point that he does this out of some sense of duty. Like Assange, what Snowden did in many ways is the bigger story than anything revealed in his leaked documents at least to the viewer looking for a human interest story and has already accepted privacy's non-existence in today's world.

There are a lot of elements in Snowden that compel, from the use of real news footage to a pudgy Nicolas Cage turning up in a legitimate theatrical release as an embittered CIA engineer who befriends Snowden. As a whole, though, the film never sizzles the way it must have in Stone's mind. He's been searching for a comeback vehicle forever, turning to such watershed issues as George W. Bush's presidency and 9/11, to no real avail. It's been a quarter-century since Stone last really commanded the attention of the public and the industry with JFK. His ability to assemble casts rich with in-demand talent proves he's not irrelevant and his distant Oscar-winning hits like Platoon and Wall Street are not forgotten.

The most memorable moment of Snowden comes before the movie even begins. Stone has filmed a turn-off-your-cell-phone message in the most Oliver Stone way possible, citing the smart, powerful handheld device as having the capability to burn your life down to the ground. I hope every screening is so lucky to have the film preceded by this amusing short.

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Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Sully The Blair Witch Bridget Jones's Baby The Light Between Oceans Hell or High Water War Dogs
Directed by Oliver Stone: Wall Street Salvador Platoon U Turn Any Given Sunday Nixon
Citizenfour The Fifth Estate Steve Jobs The Big Short
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: The Walk The Night Before Looper Premium Rush Stop-Loss The Lookout 10 Things I Hate About You
Shailene Woodley: Divergent The Descendants | Rhys Ifans: Madame Bovary Greenberg The Amazing Spider-Man
Nicolas Cage: The Runner Seeking Justice | Melissa Leo: The Fighter Flight Prisoners

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Reviewed September 16, 2016.

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