Film Review: Snowden (USA, 2016) tries too hard to make Edward Snowden look like a hero

The new biopic Snowden – in cinemas today – is a film about one of the world’s most famous political dissidents, Edward Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), by a filmmaker (Oliver Stone) who is celebrated for his political dissidence. It should be a match made in cinematic heaven. So why isn’t it?

The problems with Snowden become a little clearer when you consider something like Spotlight (2015). That movie is about reporters few people have ever heard of putting their lives and careers on the line to break an important story. Thanks to good writing and performances, something heroic emerges from just watching them do their thing. It creeps up on you though, because the movie is so focused – you spend much of the time on the edge of your seat, following every lead, fearing every threat.

In Snowden, we meet the titular character while he’s in basic training for the army, complete with montage of mud, bunk-beds, climbing-towers and an angry, African-American drill sergeant with a dirty mouth (Jaymes Butler). When he is forced to leave that career path due to injury, he applies for a position at the CIA’s cyber-security division. Soon after, he is in a classroom where his teacher, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), is setting them a task I can’t confidently explain, but whatever it is it’s supposed to take four hours. After forty minutes of rapid typing, Edward shuffles up to O’Brian’s desk and, in Gordon-Levitt’s best Kermit the Frog, tells him he’s finished.

Around this point you realise you’re not watching an espionage thriller, but a biopic about a man in his mere thirties, and, to add insult to (war) injury, not a very good one. How many times have we seen basic training in the mud? Or the classroom where the student finishes the exam obnoxiously early? How about the one where the hero meets the love of his life, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), online? She’s an amateur photographer and fitness-oriented-pole-dancer who’s politically left-leaning. They disagree, right, but they love each other anyway.

Here’s a crazy idea: Edward Snowden, as a person, might just be a boring guy (see also: Julian Assange). Writer/director Oliver Stone tries so hard to make Snowden look like a hero, impregnating his destiny with these kind of interesting things that happened one time, rather than looking into what it actually took to become the most notable whistle-blower in the world.

Sure, some of that is here. The days he spent looking over people’s shoulders, watching them watch girls de-burqa via laptop webcams that are seemingly shut-down. And that day he tried to get all that data out of the underground base in Hawaii with his co-workers all around him. But even these scenes, which should be provocative or suspenseful, aren’t interesting. They’re almost boring.

Apart from Gordon-Levitt’s strong yet croaky performance, the acting talent are wasted on two-dimensional versions of their best work. Joining those already mentioned: Nicolas Cage, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson. The only person having any real fun is Timothy Olyphant as CIA Agent Geneva. He and Snowden’s friendship-turned-conflict is the most engaging part of the movie – but it is very, very brief.

The result has the dryness of a Wikipedia page, complete with sub-headings; Army Training, CIA Training, NSA, Sub-contracting for Dell,  Japan, NSA… Somewhere after all that is a small section about espionage, except you can’t scroll ahead.


Snowden is in cinemas today.


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