*This review may contain spoilers. If you have not seen “Snowden” and don’t want the surprise of the movie ruined for you, don’t read ahead (or do, but don’t blame me if the illusion is shattered when you do eventually see it, because you should).
A quick recap of the movie: “Snowden” follows the real life story of of Edward Snowden, the man who worked for the United States National Security Agency and released NSA records to the media. After discovering the NSA (in compliance with the Central Intelligence Agency) was performing the illegal wiretapping of millions of American citizens, Snowden made the decision to alert the media (from a small Hong Kong hotel room). As he awaits refugee status to avoid an extradition to the U.S. for [an unfair] trial, Snowden is trapped in Moscow when the U.S. Department of State puts a red flag on his passport. Snowden is still living in Moscow as the U.S. government tries to work with Russian authorities to have him sent back to the States for trial.
First, I cannot even begin to explain how ecstatic I was with the casting choice of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden. He fit the role perfectly, and has a very strong dedication to the story. A month ago, Gordon-Levitt called out The Washington Post on Twitter (below or here) for refusing to support Snowden even after they shared the NSA information he provided (and won a Pulitzer Prize for it).
Other all-star cast members include Shailene Woodley, Zachary Quinto, Nicholas Cage (I was genuinely surprised to see him), and Melissa Leo.
There’s no arguing Snowden is a very controversial figure. “Snowden” aims to humanize him, providing the audience with Edward’s experiences and how they influenced him to eventually leak classified government projects. His love interest, Lindsay (played by Woodley), is one of the main reasons he makes the decision. Their strained relationship is a significant focus in “Snowden.” One scene shows Edward’s [warranted] paranoia after he learns his former-boss from the CIA is monitoring Lindsay’s e-mail, cell phone, and online presence. Other scenes show Edward placing bandages over his and Lindsay’s laptop cameras, and arguing with Lindsay over deleting her nude self-portraits. In the end, he wants to protect her (and every other American whose lives are being digitally invaded) from these breaches in personal privacy.
An overarching theme in the movie is whether Edward is a traitor or a hero. “Snowden” plays with both labels, using the plot to show him in both roles. Toward the end of the movie, when Edward is copying the NSA files onto his [very discrete] USB drive, he is secretive. Rushed. He is shown looking over his shoulder as he hurries to copy the last file, and it is implied that his actions are wrong. He is guilt-ridden and hunched over, the implications of his decision weighing on his shoulders. In this moment, we see Edward as a traitor. He is knowingly stealing classified documents from the NSA Hawaii base, risking the jobs of his colleagues (and possibly his own life). The audience sees him sneaking the USB past security in a rubix cube, coaxing one of the security guards (his friend) into testing out the cube to keep the drive from being discovered.
On the other hand, commentary from Snowden himself at the very end of the film places him in a different role. His motivations for releasing the documents weren’t sinister. He didn’t want to exploit or destroy the U.S.; he wanted the American people to hold their government (or him, he admitted, if they saw fit) accountable. I attribute this desire to release the documents to his relationship with Lindsay. In the beginning of the movie while they’re on a date, they walk through a crowd protesting Bush’s war in Iraq. Lindsay tells Edward she believes should hold their leaders accountable. People have the right to voice their concerns. By the end of “Snowden,” Edward finally understands what she was talking about with her “liberal” jargon.
In addition to his love for Lindsay, Snowden attributes his ultimate decision to the Nuremberg Trials. He questions where the line between following orders and committing a crime is drawn, and if he inadvertently crossed it when he created his surveillance projects for the CIA and NSA (the same projects they were using to spy on Americans). He also emphasized that he should be tried for his actions, but he wouldn’t receive a fair trial under the Espionage Act (hence his persistence in relocating to Latin America to avoid extradition to the U.S. from China).
“Snowden” isn’t a movie I would typically describe as action-packed. Edward wasn’t a super-spy or an assassin. He didn’t hold the President for ransom, or invade another country to gain intelligence. But that’s what made it so much better: the entire premise of “Snowden” is that he wasn’t any of those things. Edward was just a regular person. He was a regular person who made the decision to blow the whistle on one of the world’s superpowers, risking his life, relationships, and career. He threw everything away to leak these documents, and that’s (for lack of a better work) impressive.
I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, even with its lack of action-packed thrills and explosions (in the traditional sense). The movie was long, but worth every second. I left the theater not only believing that Snowden is a hero for his defiance against the government, but that he’s a complete badass. He had the audacity to question the agencies he worked for and their commitment to “security.”
After seeing (or reading about) Edward Snowden, what do you think? Is he a hero, or is he a traitor?
What we're watching.