Review: Snowden (TIFF 2016)

Last Updated on July 31, 2021

snowden banner

PLOT: The true story of Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), from his recruitment into the CIA to his eventual leaking of top-secret NSA documents, to his eventual exile and status as one of the world’s most wanted men.

REVIEW: SNOWDEN is probably Oliver Stone‘s best movie in awhile, but on the whole still lacks the tension or outrage that defined his best work. Given his politics, an Edward Snowden film by Stone was always going to come-off as a celebration of the man, but all things considered it’s a surprisingly conventional biopic, lacking the sense of urgency you’d think would be a given due to what’s at stake.

snowden joseph gordon levitt

Rather, it’s a fairly standard techno-thriller that pales alongside Laura Poitras’s CITIZENFOUR. Simply put, the Poitras film is the real deal, and watching scenes from that doc re-enacted with Hollywood actors (including Melissa Leo as Poitras and Zachary Quinto as journalist Glenn Greenwald) you wonder why this movie even exists as it will never hit the nerve that did.

SNOWDEN’s biggest fault is the same one that affected Stone’s W, in that it’s maybe too topical. The Snowden story is far from over and had they waited a few years to make a film about his life, maybe one that could better chart his post-CITIZENFOUR life as a man in exile, it might have fared better.

Even still, SNOWDEN is a worthy if flawed film. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is clearly devoted to the part, changing his voice to perfectly mimic Snowden. One can’t help but feel like Stone betrayed his performance somewhat by having the real Snowden play himself in an epilogue, which totally breaks the spell of the film and only drives home the artificiality of what we had seen up to that point.

While you’d assume Stone would be focused on the politics or cloak and dagger aspects, you’d be wrong. In fact, much of the running time is devoted to Edward’s relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills, played here by Shailene Woodley. This could have been interesting if we’d ever really gotten a chance to see what makes her tick, but it’s a one-note romance. All of a sudden they’re in-love and living together, and you never get a sense of what life is really like with a guy who works in such a top-secret job is other than the fact that she has to move all the time.

snowden joseph gordon levitt

SNOWDEN fares better when it’s centered on the government aspect, with Nicolas Cage having a juicy cameo as one of Edward’s early mentors, who, after being told computers are Snowden’s only vice, replies with the dead-on, “well, welcome to our little whorehouse.” By contrast, Rhys Ifans doesn’t fare as well as Snowden’s early champion, Corbin O’Brian, playing the part as broadly evil, with a late confrontation between the two being unintentionally humorous in its menace. The casting of Snowden’s fellow techs is also hit-and-miss, with Scott Eastwood seeming badly miscast as one, although Logan Marshall-Green and Ben Schnetzer come-off well, as does Timothy Olyphant as a field operative who gives Edward some harsh training.

In the end, SNOWDEN is neither the triumphant return-to-form Stone fans might have been hoping for, nor is it as real miss. It’s simply a middle-of-the-road movie, similar to Stone’s own WORLD TRADE CENTER, which tells the story in a straightforward way but lacks a certain…something. Unless you’re absolutely adverse to documentaries (but why would you be?), see CITIZENFOUR instead. This is an OK Edward Snowden film, but far from definitive.




Viewer Ratings (0 reviews)

Add your rating


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.