Film review: Snowden (2016)

I saw this Oliver Stone film a couple of days ago that tells the story of Edward Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) over the period 2003 to 2013, ending with his trip to Moscow. The films starts on June 3, 2013 with Snowden holed up in a hotel in Hong Kong making contact with journalists Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and Ewan MacAskill for the first time and telling them his story, though he had already given them the encrypted documents that would explode into the world that week.

The film uses flashbacks to tell the story of his evolution from someone who signs up for the US Special Forces in order to fight those who were responsible for the attacks of 9/11 to how he became increasingly concerned at the vast secret surveillance network that he finds after he transitions to computer intelligence work, first for the CIA directly and later for a series of defense contractors commissioned by the US government to work for US intelligence. His Ayn Rand-based libertarian sensitivities are disturbed by the widespread violations of people’s privacy that are being routinely committed by the US and other governments.

I am very familiar with most of the film’s content and yet found it engrossing and did not notice the length of 2 hours and 15 minutes. What I enjoyed most was how the details of the spying by governments were discovered and revealed. Where I found it dragging was in the details of the relationship between Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsey Mills (Shailene Woodley) that perhaps was emphasized too much.

Most of the film’s main features were factually accurate, but there were some fictionalized elements that had been added to presumably add drama. For example, the senior CIA officer who acted as Snowden’s mentor and greased his rise up the ladder is I believe fictional and was played somewhat melodramatically by Rhys Ifans, with the canonical husky voice that fictional spies often have. Nicholas Cage has a cameo as a computer expert for the CIA who represents those who tried to work within the system to expose its shortcoming and make things better and were thwarted because of the way that the government prefers to give huge amounts of money to defense contractors. Snowden’s encounter with him planted the seeds of doubt about the government’s intentions in the idealistic young Snowden’s mind.

The dramatic tension in the film is between those who think that the government has the right to secretly pursue pretty much any avenue it wants in its efforts to counter terrorism, and those who think that constitutional checks and balances on governmental power should mean something and that the people have a right to know what the government is doing in its name.

While in reality Snowden planned the collection of documents carefully and carried out the clandestine collection over a period of time, in the film it all happens quite suddenly. But such liberties with the facts are to be expected. This was, after all, not a documentary like the Academy Award winning Citizenfour by Laura Poitras that I reviewed earlier. These changes were not egregious ones that undermined the basic premise of the story.

Here’s the trailer.


  1. says

    Does it present any of what pretend to be technical details?
    I usually lose my mind when I see movies that touch on computer topics, It’s all “OH, it’s UNIX. I know this.” (Jurassic Park) and I nearly pull my own face off from facepalming.

  2. hyphenman says

    I am very familiar with most of the film’s content and yet found it engrossing and did not notice the length of 2 hours and 15 minutes.

    Thank you Mano. I’ve been vacillating on whether or not to see the film because, like you, I’ve followed the story for so long.



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