Friday, 23 September 2016

Film Review: Snowden

Oliver Stone’s portrait of a 21st Century whistle-blower is an overlong affair with brief flashes of brilliance throughout. 

Hero, patriot, traitor, terrorist; wherever you fall on the spectrum of opinions regarding Edward Snowden, it’s hard to argue that his actions haven’t irreversibly changed contemporary discourse on politics, counterterrorism, warfare and surveillance.

Curiously, Oliver Stone’s heavily dramatized film is both a biopic of Edward Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a ‘making-of’ for 2014’s Best Documentary Feature winner, Citizenfour. The film follows Snowden’s entire career from 2003 to present, jumping forward on multiple occasions to a stuffy Hong Kong hotel room in June 2013 where the former NSA contractor is feverishly working with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and a duo of journalists (Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson) to leak key top security documents to the press. Flashbacks fill in the blanks as Stone follows the disillusioned former soldier through a string of events that will lead him to make a world-changing decision that could cost him his life and the love of his long-term partner Lindsay (Shailene Woodley).

Stone frames his subject as a remarkable man but surrounds him with a rather unremarkable film; it’s not the subject matter that fails to enthral, but rather its execution; you’ll still drive home with your head swirling at the significance of Snowden’s actions, but on reflection it feels like the director doesn’t deliver that final powerhouse blow that this story so clearly needs (and deserves). 

You see, Snowden is building towards this shattering finale that we know is coming; it’s not a question of if he succeeds, but which pivotal moments inspire him to make the decision to blow the whistle on his own government. In that regard, the film doesn’t wholly succeed; in following Snowden’s entire career, Stone loses himself in the detail, meandering through assignment after assignment as his titular character ambles from Geneva to Japan and onto Maryland and Hawaii. The pace is achingly slow as the years wind on and JGL becomes visibly more beleaguered by the crushing secrets he uncovers. 

That’s not a slight on Gordon-Levitt though; he totally disappears into the role of Snowden, lowering his voice an octave or two and absolutely nailing the mannerisms of the man he’s embodying. Similarly, Woodley has never been better as the dedicated, perplexed girlfriend Lindsay who finds herself caught in the crossfire. The relationship between Edward and Lindsay is thrust to the forefront for most of the elongated second act, and it’s the convincing chemistry between the two leads that keeps this film above water even when the pacing is a struggle. This dynamic also keeps Snowden planted as a brave everyman who steps up the plate, plainly providing a political angle that some – most American politicians included - might not agree with. 

Stone chooses to sell us on his stance with skill and discretion; Snowden isn’t a towering tour de force that hits you over the head, but rather an understated character study that examines what it would take for an everyman like Edward Snowden to snap and ‘betray’ his country. Unusually for Stone, his film is rather reserved; flashes of fright are sprinkled in, but some may feel that the filmmaker doesn’t push the envelope far enough in fear of losing his audience.

The Verdict: 6.5/10

As a biopic, Snowden adequately serves its purpose; it educates us on an interesting and important man through some talented acting work. But as an enthralling movie that keeps you entertained throughout, it’s only an infrequently intense piece padded with meandering sections of mediocrity in between.

Snowden is in cinemas across Australia

This review was originally published over at Hooked on Film, a Perth based website where you can find even more new release movie reviews, features, interviews and insight. Click here to check it out. 


  1. I'm glad you like JGL in this performance. I thought he was great. Nice review!

    1. JGL was great - really committed to the role. Thanks for commenting!



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