Regardless of your opinions on Edward Snowden’s 2014 disclosures about national and global surveillance, there are a few things Oliver Stone’s Snowden does well to narrate Snowden’s story. However, as with almost any movie, there are some cringeworthy moments and things that don’t jibe well with Snowden’s motivations or overall message.
Throughout the movie, Stone frames Snowden using the already well established documentary Citizenfour by Laura Poitras, where she captured conversations between Snowden, herself, Glenn Greenwald, and Ewen MacAskill. In Citizenfour, Snowden passed over National Security Agency documents and explained the modern American intelligence system. In some moments, the two films paralleled almost identically. One such scene depicts four people sitting in a Hong Kong hotel room with pillows and towels around the door to muffle sound and cell phones piled in microwaves to reduce the possibility of covert surveillance. One of Snowden’s greatest achievements is actually encouraging people to watch Citizenfour.
For Snowden supporters, and even Snowden himself, the movie is a godsend. Why? Because it actually helps educate the average American on who Snowden is, and provides some justification for Snowden’s actions. Of course, as with any modern entertainment, Snowden is spruced up with a stereotypical romance backstory (sex and all) and appealing visuals—which were cringeworthy at times—but those serve a purpose. Snowden does a good job at appealing to people and hooking them in, all while educating them about Snowden’s life.
Now, unlike the more straightforward Citizenfour, Snowden focuses heavily on Snowden’s personal life, especially on the romance backstory: Snowden’s relationship with his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, portrayed by Shailene Woodley. And while arguably the movie could have done better without such a large focus, Stone had an intention. For the modern citizen, whose only information source on Snowden is the mainstream media, it can be easy to think of him as some far-off lifeless entity who leaked documents to gain fame and personal glory. As the plot of Snowden unfolds, we learn of Snowden’s past, from being trained as a special forces candidate, to his work at the CIA, and to his personal background. It reveals one thing: Snowden had a life. He had everything anyone could ask for—a good job, a good house, a good relationship. However, those all collapsed the moment he leaked documents in the hope of educating the world about the things the Intelligence Community does without our knowledge. It personifies Snowden from someone you hear on the news to an actual person with a life. It portrays Snowden in a relatable way, with the intent of helping the viewer develop a connection with Snowden and ponder what he would have done had he been in Snowden’s shoes.
However, despite all this, Snowden made one thing clear from the beginning: he didn’t want to be the story. Even in Citizenfour, he worked with Poitras to ensure that his presence only facilitated the telling of the larger picture and didn’t make him the main focus. It seemed as if the filmmakers of Snowden just overlooked that entirely. In Snowden, we see a character who sees the outing of a whistleblower as the goal instead of just an inevitable consequence of his actions. It’s rather fitting that Snowden ends with a lecture hall giving Snowden a standing ovation, shifting the focus entirely to him, while his face appears on screens everywhere.
I highly recommend Snowden for anyone who wants to be educated on Snowden and his actions without the complete monotony of sifting through countless news articles and Wikipedia pages. While there is considerable bias as it’s an entire movie about Snowden which depicts him in a positive light, you’ll see the big picture when you combine it with other information sources, more than what the media wants you to see. It also encourages you to care about your online life, and start protecting it, for yourself and the ones you love.