Snowden review: “Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a powerful performance”

Oliver Stone turns the story of whistleblower Edward Snowden into a tense and exciting thriller

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★★★★

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In 2013, a huge number of highly classified government files were leaked by a former CIA employee named Edward Snowden. At the time, Snowden was working as a private contractor for the National Security Agency, which was conducting global surveillance programs that enabled them to spy on ordinary people. These programs allowed American intelligence agencies to read personal emails and private internet conversations, as well as providing access to phone records and social media accounts.

Rightly or wrongly, Edward Snowden believed that it was his duty to disclose this information to the world. After obtaining the files, he travelled to a chic, upscale hotel in Hong Kong, which is where the film begins. When we first meet Ed (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he has arranged a clandestine meeting with a documentary film-maker (Melissa Leo) and two experienced journalists (Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson). As the four of them debate the best way to publish the NSA documents, director Oliver Stone uses a series of lengthy flashbacks to depict Snowden’s career in the intelligence community.

Importantly, all of this is far more enjoyable than it might sound. Packed with drama and intrigue, the film plays out as a tense political thriller, and it is highly entertaining from start to finish. There are numerous scenes where characters are working on laptops or computers, but Stone ensures that these sequences are dramatic and involving, which isn’t as easy as it may seem.

Undoubtedly, one of the film’s biggest assets is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who gives a powerful performance as the title character. The likeable actor is suitably boyish and endearing, and he sounds just like the man himself, although it might take a couple of scenes to get used to his Snowden voice. Furthermore, Gordon-Levitt is utterly convincing as a geeky, super-smart computer genius, and he does a great job of showing us how the character changes over time.

When Ed joins the CIA, he is an idealistic young man who refuses to sign an antiwar petition. Over the years, however, he becomes increasingly disillusioned and paranoid, which causes problems for his long-term girlfriend (Shailene Woodley) and a senior CIA figure (Rhys Ifans). As Ed tries to serve his country, he learns things that he can’t ignore, and he witnesses a variety of practices and situations that he finds deeply troubling.

When he’s stationed in Geneva, for example, Ed discovers that it is possible to activate any laptop webcam without the owner’s knowledge or consent, even if the laptop is switched off. Later, an ambitious field agent (Timothy Olyphant) casually ruins a man’s life in order to secure a promotion.

These situations give rise to some very effective scenes, and Stone ensures that the story is infused with a sense of urgency. In truth, there are times when the film lacks subtlety, and it starts to get a little cheesy towards the end. For instance, there’s a brief scene where Ed’s trusted CIA instructor (a cameoing Nicolas Cage) proclaims “He did it. The kid did it!” while watching news coverage on television. Crucially, though, these are minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things, and they don’t derail the film, which is the best work that Stone has done in years.

Of course, it isn’t the first film to tell Edward Snowden’s story. In 2014, film-maker Laura Poitras (as played here by Melissa Leo) gave us Citizenfour, the Oscar-winning documentary that is largely comprised of footage from the hotel room in Hong Kong. Poitras’s film is well regarded by many people, and rightly so, but there’s no reason why we can’t have two movies on the same subject, especially when they’re so different. Stone’s film is the more accessible of the two, and if it brings Snowden’s story to a wider audience, then that can only be a good thing.

Snowden is in cinemas now

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