Snowden: Portrait of a Whistle-Blower


Edward Snowden was the agent behind the 2013 revelations of the National Security Administration’s vast international and domestic spying operation. But Snowden claimed he didn’t want to be the focus of the story. In Laura Poitras’s extraordinary 2014 documentary, Citizenfour, Snowden twice demurs: “I’m not the story here,” he insists, and then, later, “I don’t want to get myself into the issue . . . where it takes away from the stories that are getting out.”

Vain wish, that. For of course Snowden was and will ever be the story’s matrix—whistle-blower or traitor, hero or villain, depending on your point of view. Citizenfour’s cinematic power resides in its moles-and-all portrayal of a brilliant young man who is risking everything—career, love, freedom, possibly even his life—to bring to light the U.S. government’s limitless, unconstitutional invasion of privacy. Poitras captures Snowden at the very time of crisis, when he’s holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room, pouring out his soul and opening the trove of top-secret information he’s stolen to the filmmaker and her collaborator, journalist Glenn Greenwald. It’s terrifying—not least because the viewer, like Snowden himself, can’t be sure that CIA/NSA thugs won’t bust down the door at any moment. Citizenfour is the rare film that intensifies the way you look at the world; I remember leaving the theater with my personal paranoia thrumming full throttle.

The first thing that needs to be said about Oliver Stone’s new biopic, Snowden, is that it’s a much more conventional piece of filmmaking than Citizenfour. The second thing is that, despite itself, it’s pretty damned good. Director Stone (who cowrote the screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald) uses the Hong Kong interviews Snowden gave to Poitras (played by Melissa Leo) and Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) as a fulcrum, fleshing out the story of Snowden’s life and political evolution through a series of flashbacks that begin in 2004, when 21-year-old Ed (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was a U.S. Army Reservist trying to make it into the Special Forces. When two broken legs force him to give up on that dream, he decides to use his substantial intellectual talent to help his country in other ways, training with the CIA and then taking a series of intelligence jobs that lead him, finally, to an “infrastructure analyst” post with NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton at the NSA’s regional operations center in Oahu, Hawaii. There, his top-level security clearance enables him to access all the classified information he’ll eventually divulge.

SNOWDEN, from left: Melissa Leo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Wilkinson, Zachary Quinto, 2015. ph: Jurgen Olczyk /© Open Road Films / Courtesy Everett Collection
From left: Melissa Leo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Wilkinson, Zachary Quinto. Photo by Jurgen Olczyk /© Open Road Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

Meanwhile, while he’s climbing the career ladder, Ed falls head over heels for a young woman named Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). In Stone’s telling, Ed’s love and concern for Lindsay are integral to his fateful decision. As the moral quandaries imposed by his job become more intolerable, Ed’s worries mount that his and Lindsay’s relationship—repeatedly damaged by the pressures of Ed’s work, which he can never talk to her about—cannot be sustained, and also that Lindsay is under NSA surveillance and herself in grave danger. Frankly, I found Snowden’s romantic story line just a tad too pat: Boy gets girl, boy loses girl (a couple of times), and then (you guessed it) boy gets girl back again. And other aspects of Snowden’s plot—so laden with ironies and foreshadowings—seemed Hollywood-picture artifices that just couldn’t be true of any actual human life.

And yet. And yet. Edward Snowden’s adventure is remarkable, almost mythic in its fatedness. In an early scene in Snowden, Ed tells a CIA interviewer that Joseph Campbell is one of his influences, and in reality Snowden’s life has played out like one of those classic heroic quests Campbell spent his career analyzing and celebrating. A young, weakling genius—so sweetly naive he’s dubbed “Snow White” by a sarcastic coworker—undergoes a series of excruciating trials that strengthen him and ultimately guide him to sacrifice his very self, if need be, to save the world. Whew.

Whether the world has in any meaningful sense been made better by Snowden’s act is, of course, untellable. Various measures purporting to limit the U.S. intelligence services’ power and reach have been enacted, but I don’t think I’m alone in assuming that the government can still find out anything and everything about anyone and everyone. But even if the hero’s sacrifice is futile, his (or her) story must be told. And Stone, despite the screenwriting contrivances, tells Snowden’s story well, aided by a sensational performance by his lead actor. Gordon-Levitt doesn’t look at all like Edward Snowden, and, except for era-specific changes of eyewear, doesn’t try to. But he exactingly reproduces Snowden’s peculiar, and peculiarly memorable, voice. At once halting and mellifluous, monotonous and grandiloquent, it’s a voice that seems as self-taught as Snowden’s erudition. (Snowden made it into intelligence analysts’ top echelon without ever graduating from high school.) Gordon-Levitt inhabits the character so absolutely that it isn’t as jarring as it ought to be when, near the end of the film, the real-life Snowden takes over the role. (Whether putting Ed Snowden himself into the film was a wise directorial choice is another question.)

The other actors, as critics say, acquit themselves well—especially Woodley, whom I’ve loved ever since she played George Clooney’s brattish teenage daughter in The Descendants, and Nicolas Cage, who plays a cranky, bitter old fart of a teacher at the CIA’s spy academy. Welsh actor Rhys Ifans is appropriately scary as Snowden’s CIA mentor, Corbin O’Brian—a Big Brother whose repulsive self-confidence dissolves when his favorite little puppet betrays him. And Snowden’s special effects are clever and well deployed—especially the psychedelic montages that accompany Ed’s epileptic seizures. (Were you aware that Snowden has epilepsy? Neither was I.)

Mythic tales are supposed to remain thrilling no matter how familiar they may be, and perhaps the best aspect of Stone’s film is that it manages to sustain and even amplify the suspense throughout, despite the fact that we all know how Snowden’s story will turn out (well, at least up to his current comfortable exile in Moscow). That’s partly a function of Stone’s use of voice-over, a narrative stratagem that generally fails more often than it succeeds. But Gordon-Levitt’s preternatural impersonation of Snowden’s bland, self-conscious and fretful vocal style conveys the fear and dismay he almost perpetually suffered, and aside from William Holden’s narration in Sunset Boulevard, I can’t think of another movie in which voice-over has worked so well.

So do go see Snowden. And then join the call urging President Obama to grant Ed Snowden a pardon. Which won’t ever happen. Unless, of course, the magical trajectory of Mr. Snowden’s life should take yet another astonishing turn.

Photos: Everett Collection