The Man Who Blew The Whistle

Oliver Stone
Director / Writer

Kieran Fitzgerald

Movie Review
SNOWDEN: A Beautifully Restrained Wake-Up Call



Screenplay by: Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone

Directed by: Oliver Stone


“I feel like I'm made to do this, and if I don't do it, I don't know anybody else that can... I can't turn back from this.”

How would you react if you found out that your government – an institution that is sworn to uphold and protect its citizens’ rights – is doing the very opposite of what it pledges to do? Would you remain silent, or would you expose the truth? Will your actions make you a patriot, or a traitor? Will history regard you as the canary, or the snake? Most individuals would probably crumple under the weight of such a heavy dilemma. Fortunately, Snowden’s titular character is very unlike most individuals.

Directed by Oliver Stone (the Oscar-winning mind behind hits such as Platoon and JFK), Snowden is a semi-fictionalized biographical thriller that centers on one of this generation’s most (in)famous political dissidents: Edward Snowden, the man who blew the whistle, leaked thousands of confidential files to the masses, and left the U.S government reeling from the impact. Played to surprising precision by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the film follows Snowden’s life and career, right from his days as a hopeful Special Forces candidate, to that singular moment as a cyberstrategist who learns that the National Security Agency he works for is conducting horribly invasive, unconstitutional surveillance against its own citizens.

Co-written by director Stone and writer Kieran Fitzgerald, the screenplay is said to have been adapted from two books: the biographical Snowden Files by the Guardian’s Luke Harding, and the fictionalized Time of the Octopus by Snowden’s Moscow-based lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena. In fact, it was Kucherena who, along with producer Moritz Borman, reportedly served as the liaison between Snowden and Stone, thus assisting Borman with laying the bricks to this docudrama’s foundation. Of course, no material from Time of the Octopus is actually used in the movie, making this Kremlin-connected attorney’s true value to the making of this film apparent. With Kucherena’s help, Stone and Borman were thus granted access to ‘Sasha’, a disillusioned ex-CIA employee and former NSA sub-contractee – better known to the rest of the world as ‘Snowden’.

This film was not easy to make. With relentless financial setbacks that forced a postponed release date on three different occasions, Stone and Borman have certainly defied some seemingly impenetrable odds to bring this project to life. Not only did they have to find a way to film across continents from Washington D.C. to Hawaii, Moscow, Germany, and Hong Kong on a tight budget (cinematographer Anthony Mantle does a commendable job), but they also suffered the cold shoulder from big Hollywood studios. Predictably, producers were more than unwilling to be associated with one of America’s most wanted men. Eventually, Snowden was picked up by Open Road – a small production studio that is responsible for similarly understated hits such as Spotlight and Jobs. When Sony refused to acquire the world rights, Stone and his team were forced to sign with an independent French distributor, resulting in a significantly limited reach. This is probably why Snowden was so heavily marketed in India, yet mysteriously failed to hit Indian theatres on the promised date. Nonetheless, this film is an intriguing watch that serves as Stone’s grand comeback into the realm of serious, hard-hitting political biopics – no matter how the modern battlefield changes.

With Gordon-Levitt at its center, Snowden evokes an almost permanent atmosphere of inner conflict and paranoia. Crucial flashback scenes set in a Hong Kong hotel room introduce the three characters that were directly involved with unveiling this conspiracy: documentary director Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), and the Guardian’s intelligence correspondent Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). It is worth mentioning that, apart from delivering excellent performances, Leo, Quinto and Wilkinson even resemble their subjects in the reel. Casting (Lucy Bevan, Mary Vernieu) has been a diligent and noteworthy effort, and production design (Mark Tildesley) and set decoration (Veronique Melery) are thorough and convincing, save for the Hawaii base towards the end of the film.

While this movie is a very mainstream attempt (unlike Killswitch or Poitras’ Citizenfour) to highlight Snowden’s plight and his eventual escape to Moscow, it also chronicles his strained relationship with longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley): a passionate, dedicated photographer who follows him across the world in spite of his secretive nature. The emotionally charged scenes between Snowden and Mills serve to humanize our protagonist, saving him from drowning amidst all of the complex (yet sometimes overly explained) technical jargon, pressured decision-making, and quiet mistrust. 

Woodley’s portrayal of the lively Mills contrasts delightfully against Gordon-Levitt’s plain and understated Snowden: she is the much-needed burst of colour in his otherwise bleak, grey world. It must be mentioned, however, that it is the strategically planned costume and makeup departments (Christine Fennell, Claudia-Maria Braun) that are chiefly responsible for this effect. While Gordon-Levitt’s performance will likely grant him a Best Actor mention, Woodley’s presentation is rather, well, wooden. Her eyes lack life, and her delivery is incredibly flat. Considering that this could likely be her best performance till date, it’s safe to say that this actor seriously needs to work on her craft.

With Corbin O’Brien (CIA recruiter and chief antagonist, played by Rhys Ifans – a clever tribute to George Orwell) and Hank Forrester (a jaded NSA instructor, played by Nicolas Cage and very likely based on NSA crypto-mathematician William Binney) added to the mix, you’ve got a potent recipe for some typical Hollywood over-dramatization. You’ve got the “young recruit stuns instructors during a training exercise (oh my gosh, how does the boy wonder do it!)” scene, your “overly enthusiastic professor reveals top-secret information to an employee he’s literally just met” bit, and of course, the seminal “Big Brother knows your secret” scene that will likely get your heart pounding. Ifans and Cage deliver refreshing performances that, combined with a stirring soundtrack (Craig Armstrong, Adam Peters), effectively breathe life into Snowden’s occasionally lagging pace.

Indeed, the film’s erratic momentum deserves some complaining about. While Snowden is sometimes painfully slow, it can also be a little too fast-paced, breezing past important details such as what the protagonist was doing at the hotel 11 days before he met with the journalists in Hong Kong, and how on Earth the man landed a CIA job interview in the first place. Stone drags this cyberthriller for 2 hours and 20 minutes, and one can’t help but wonder why certain scenes couldn’t have been scrapped in favour of more riveting ones. Considering that Snowden grew up in a family of national security personnel, it’s strange that the writers passed up the opportunity to grant us a glimpse of his childhood.

Although both writing and editing (Alex Marquez, Lee Percy) can get a bit bumpy towards the middle of the film, Gordon-Levitt’s focused portrayal successfully distracts viewers from Snowden’s sometimes unfocused pace. Right from mannerisms to gait and a carefully modulated voice, this actor is almost scarily perfect as Snowden. When viewers aren’t left enthralled by this flawless performance, Snowden poses some alarmingly pertinent questions, such as the definition of ‘patriotism’ – is it loyalty to one’s government, or to one’s people? Was Edward Snowden a hero, or a traitor? The answer is entirely subjective, but, unlike Open Roads’ Spotlight, Snowden does tend to pick a side towards the end, which could potentially leave viewers feeling rather manipulated.

While I was glad to have been able to watch Snowden in Berlin, I was also left answering the same question several times: How does it matter to us, now that the film isn't even releasing here? Snowden and the NSA are America’s problem, so why should India care?

Yes, Snowden talks of one of America’s greatest intelligence disasters, ever. But, here’s the interesting bit: this disaster also directly affected the rest of the world. In fact, it isn’t just India, but a whopping 192 other countries that should care. That’s right, folks – the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court actually authorised the American NSA to spy on all but 4 of the world’s countries. Save for Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand – the only nations that were privileged enough to sign a ‘no-spying agreement’ with the U.S government – the NSA had actually been granted the right to watch and intercept information from 193 countries and their citizens. Not only that, but they were also accumulating confidential user data and personal webcam footage through tech giants such as Google, Facebook, and Yahoo. And yes, all of this happened to occur during the 21st century: a time that is frequently referred to as the greatest era for freedom and democracy.

And so, my answer is yes, this film is very relevant to us – not just because of its spot-on portrayal of this generation’s cyber-espionage culture, but also because it paints a terrifying portrait of modern society’s slow trudge towards an Oceania-like state.

“Are they watching us?” a shaken Lindsay Mills’ voice echoes in my mind as I write this.

I can only hope that Snowden’s efforts to educate the masses on one of history’s most notorious scandals is successful, to which I leave you with Alan Moore's famously revelatory quote: “People shouldn't be afraid of their government... Governments should be afraid of their people.” 



   Tina Mohandas

Tina Mohandas is a songwriter, musician, tattoo artist, vintage motorcycle collector, and animal rights activist. Currently writing her debut science fantasy novel, she is also the co-founder of the non-profit Bikerhood India initiative, and hopes one day to free every caged animal in the world.

Click here to Top