(Photo: Wikipedia/youtube/The WikiLeaks Channel.)
Well, at long last, I've been back to the movies. Yes, the drought has broken, at least for the time being. There are one or two movies around now for the serious adult viewer, so I may be putting pen to paper a little bit more often than I have recently.
Directed and co-written by veteran film-maker Oliver Stone, "Snowden" is, essentially, a biographical political thriller, based on true characters and a true story. Edward Snowden, a (formerly) patriotic and highly intelligent US intelligence analyst and computer whiz, had a flourishing career at the US National Security Agency where he was marked for big things. Then, bit by bit over a period of time, he became aware how much the NSA was conducting secret mass surveillance on millions of ordinary law-abiding Americans and people in other countries too. All in the name of counter-terrorism. Snowden eventually concludes that the world must be made aware of this, he leaks classified material to the newspapers, and then, one jump ahead of the vengeful Americans, leaves the West and ends up living in exile in Russia, where he still lives today with the threat of an espionage prosecution hanging over his head if he ever leaves.
Snowden is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as a serious, rather reserved, almost nerdy personality. His girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, is played by the rather cute and cuddly Shailene Woodley, who nevertheless shows a steely interior and strong loyalty to her boyfriend when the chips are down. Woodley's performance is very good and the unfolding relationship between Mills and Snowden is perhaps the strongest and most interesting aspect of the film. (The real-life Mills now lives in Russia with Snowden. That's what I call loyalty!) Other good supporting performances come from some well-known faces: Tom Wilkinson as Snowden's chief journalistic contact at "the Guardian" newspaper which broke the story, and Nicolas Cage as an intelligence operative.
One of the problems with this kind of story is that there is not much action or glamour with modern intelligence agents who sit around gazing at computer screens all day. James Bond this isn't. Stone does his best, ratcheting up the tension as Snowden learns more and more of what the NSA is doing, and particularly as he worries about NSA surveillance not only of himself, but of his girlfriend too. Stone's feel for authenticity is probably supported by meetings he had with the real-life Snowden during the making of the movie. There is no doubt that the film really hit its straps when Snowden decides to reveal all and makes a run for it. The scenes in Hong Kong, where Snowden briefs the media while worrying about whether he will be "snatched" by American agents, are undoubtedly the most exciting parts of this movie. Also, the role of a humble Rubik's cube in smuggling material out of NSA headquarters shows that, sometimes, the simplest, most obvious stratagems are the best for defeating prying eyes.
So, is the real-life Snowden a traitor to be condemned or a whistleblower to be admired? This will, of course, depend on your point of view. It is the same dilemma that afflicts that other famous whistleblower, Julian Assange. Stone's movie, while not making hard and fast judgements, probably errs – just – on the "admirable whistleblower" side of the ledger. The director's failure to utterly condemn Snowden outright probably explains why much of the film was actually shot in Germany rather than the US, and why much of its finance came from Europe. The movie definitely treads on some super-sensitive American toes. Probably not helped, either, by the real-life Ed Snowden making a cameo appearance right at the end of the film.
My main criticism of the film is that it is too long: 2 1/2 hours. Cutting a good half-hour out of it would have made for a tighter, more tense story. Too much time is wasted, in my view, on building up Snowden's back-story as the rising young star of the American intelligence community. Still, as a bio pic on a true-life character who has made an enormous impact on the world, "Snowden" is certainly interesting, and quite exciting once the lead character decides to kick over the traces.
Gilbert's star rating (out of five): * * * 1/2