“It was an alarming experience for me. I am not an actor. I have been told I am not very good at it. But you know if I can, I can try and maybe it will help, I will give it my best shot.”
“He’s coming.” As Snowden begins, Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) wait in a Hong Kong mall in June 2013, wondering just what Edward Snowden looks like. They guess as a few possibilities walk by, finally seeing the sign they’ve been instructed to watch out for, a Rubik’s cube. You see it at the same time they do, but from the opposite direction: as Laura smiles, small and blurry in the background, the camera follows from behind the cube, looming huge in a close-up as Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) holds it lightly in his hand, turning it over and over.
The focus on this reflexive gesture, this turning the cube over and over, introduces Snowden’s twitchy energy and his brilliance, a metaphor that informs the rest of Oliver Stone’s movie. Snowden works backward and forward from this moment, tracing Snowden’s journey from an aspiring Special Forces recruit to CIA employee and NSA contractor, and also reimagines his project with Greenwald and Poitras, a two-week session in a Hong Kong hotel room turned into 2014’s Academy Award-winning documentary, Citizenfour.
The documentary also featured the Rubik’s cube, via brief text messaging between Poitras and Snowden. That reference, at once understated and resonant, stands in complete contrast to the one in Snowden, which makes its case loudly and repeatedly. That case is essentially a romance, focused both on the relationship between Snowden and his partner Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), and on Snowden’s very earnest patriotism. These two storylines overlap repeatedly, as Lindsay, an amateur photographer and self-declared “liberal”, presses Snowden to see the world anew, an awakening that occasions his decision to turn whistleblower.
These story strands come together in Snowden’s transformation, one that recalls those of Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) in Platoon (a character reportedly based on Stone’s own experience) and Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise) in Born on the Fourth of July. It’s possible too to see in Snowden the disillusionment and heroic muster of Stone protagonists, from Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) in JFK or Bud (Sheen again) in Wall Street. Some parallels are overt: Snowden first appears in flashback as a soldier at Fort Benning, surrounded by dozens of anonymous others, his own face dominated by big geek glasses. Clearly out of place amid fierce sergeants and muddy obstacle fields, Snowden is discharged when he breaks both his legs, then redirects his patriotic fervor with the CIA.
Here young Snowden finds his métier, even as, in DC, he meets face to face with Lindsay, with whom he’s met online (to indicate their insta-bond, a close-up of a message shows they share an affection for Ghost on the Shell). Her playful inclination to photograph Snowden throughout the film — click-clicking black and white freeze frames — emphasizes his reluctance to be recorded, inviting your own increasing distrust of cameras and data collection. Lindsay’s photographic work tends to focus on women’s bodies, including her own in assorted self-portraits but, as Snowden warns her, anything on her laptop is subject to capture. This includes, per the film’s penchant for melodrama, an intimate encounter Snowden imagines is being taped through Lindsay’s open laptop camera.
Snowden doesn’t exactly tell Lindsay what he’s imagining. Indeed, this nightmare — thinking the laptop is watching him have sex — is telegraphed just for you, with arty zooms and reflections of Lindsay’s naked back in lenses. If this isn’t enough to get you worried about how the government ignores rights to privacy, the film piles on, with scary shots of a surveillance drone buzzing over a backyard party (its hovering revealed by the movie’s camera, also hovering, over it, a weird kind of meta-surveillance image), of Snowden framed again and again by flashy-light computer screens, and of course, grainy attack drone footage, with pilots or observers safe in their offices, proclaiming the great accuracy of their weapons as unidentified bodies fly apart.
These vivid images reinforce the idea that the government has no limits, and Snowden’s rightness in calling it out. You can’t be surprised that Oliver Stone’s movie celebrates Snowden, though you might note too that it does so with such commotion and such reduction. Alas, Snowden’s story takes up a familiar structure, particularly in his two fictional agency mentors, Hank (Nicholas Cage) and Corbin (Rhys Ifans). Much like the “two fathers” who shaped Chris Taylor, one is good and morally sound, the other is less so. Hank voices his complaints in a lab full of old encryption machines and early computer, while Corbin takes Snowden hunting for pheasants or bullies him from a humungous screen, incarnating the surveillance monster conjured by the US government.
Even as Snowden faces down this Darth Vadery specter, he’s wrestling with his own responsibilities regarding the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping. Stirred when he first sees one overreaching surveillance program, XKeyscore, introduced by cool dude coworker Gabriel (Ben Schnetzer), Snowden’s concerns escalate as he’s privy to all sorts of shady developments, the mass data collection programs (compelling Snowden to exclaim, “”You didn’t tell me we were running a dragnet on the whole world, Corbin”), and the costs to his personal life, as he fights with Lindsay over things he can’t tell her.
As their conflicts and efforts to reconcile unfold, Snowden cuts back repeatedly to the Hong Kong hotel room, where Snowden and Poitras, Greenwald, and Guardian reporter Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) work out a plan to release information. These scenes borrow from Poitras’ documentary, in frames showing Snowden working on his laptop (with his “magic mantle of power”, a red blanket to hide his typing his password), watching TV (where he’s the topic of news reports, reflected in his glasses, now not so geeky), and looking out his window, as Poitras invites him to feel comfortable with her camera, to see it “as a friend”.
Her gentle suggestions connect narrative and thematic strands, the contradictions with which we all live. Cameras and media can increase transparency or magnify performances, security might be a function of privacy or the opposite of freedom. How they work has to do with those who produce and those who consume. If surveillance technologies or overbearing moviemaking are not in themselves the problems, you’re still left with the question of how to parse what you read, how to respond to what you think you know, and how to understand what’s in front of you. As much as Snowden is overstated and underwhelming, it can’t undercut the crucial importance of Snowden’s ongoing story.