Snowden (2016) Movie Review

A movie by a veteran (yet perhaps out of touch) director starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt depicting a true story that was previously depicted in an acclaimed documentary. Is this The Walk. No, this is Snowden.

Snowden follows the CIA career and subsequent “whistleblowing” of Edward Snowden (Gordon-Levitt), as well as his relationship with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).


Snowden’s script at times reads more like a civics lesson than a drama. Feeling the need to outline the fourth amendment and FISA courts makes it come across more condescending than compelling. Certainly the characters on-screen wouldn’t need the definitions that they get; neither do we.

The story itself is partially lifted from the fantastic 2014 documentary Citizenfour, a narrative that takes up far too much of the film’s runtime given its redundancy.

The biopic checks the boxes of a standard biopic without delving deep enough into the subject matter to make a dramatization of the story feel warranted. Director Oliver Stone’s pension for stirring the pot with liberal politics continues here. He pushes the buttons that may rile up the uninformed, but it is all old news otherwise. The nuance of the story can already be found, more succinctly and urgently, in Citizenfour. The biggest foul the narrative commits, though, is its extension about 20 minutes past its expiration date.

The only thing that the film does add that wasn’t already well-known about the situation is Snowden’s tumultuous relationship with Mills. This is a subplot that has narrative legs—it is certainly the most intriguing relationship we see Snowden have in the film—but it ultimately provides little in the way of intrigue.

Narrative aside, Snowden is functional as a film. The shot structure is smooth and engaging. Certain tricks of the camera that manipulate perspective gets annoying at times, though. The lighting, for better or worse, is the best part of the entire movie.

Gordon-Levitt does a good job isolating Snowden’s curt cadence and deep voice. He is still indistinguishably Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but it is a very believable performance. Woodley works well as his on-screen pairing, particularly once their characters get at each other’s throats. A small role from Nicolas Cage, too, is surprising and surprisingly good.

Snowden is a meager biopic (and major Oscar-bait) showing that while Stone retains his craftwork, he has lost the vein of conspiratorial rage that gave his films bite in the first place. The subject matter less timely, Snowden needed to go beyond the basic story to resonate. Alas it is merely that: a by-the-books offering that fails to stay with you.


Snowden: C+


The Post-Script

Melodrama, idyllic characterizations, and blatantly one-sided politics mar Snowden from being the Oscar-worthy film that it is trying to be, and it is really trying to be just that. I mean, the elaborate end credits sequence features an original song written and performed by Peter Gabriel (not a great song, at that).


As always, thanks for reading!

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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)


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