SNOWDEN. Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Shailene Woodley. Also, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, and Nicholas Cage. Directed by Oliver Stone. Rated M (Coarse language and sex scene).139 min.
This is an American biographical drama based on two books: "The Snowden Files" by Luke Harding, and "Time of the Octopus" by Anatoly Kucherena. The movie follows the life of Edward Joseph Snowden, who was the computer expert who leaked classified information on the National Security Agency (NSA) to the mainstream media, via "The Guardian" in June, 2013.
The movie is directed by Oliver Stone in thriller-documentary style that keeps the viewer highly absorbed. Stone is well known for directing quality movies with political content, such as the academy-award winning, "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989), "JFK" (1991), and "Nixon" (1995).
This film focuses on the activities of Edward Snowden between 2004 and 20013. Snowden, while working for NSA, revealed that NSA was sourcing massive information about US individuals, but also information about some of America's largest technology companies, as well as personal details about the data systems being used by people and organisations abroad.
Due to injury, Snowden could not join the US special forces, and was offered a position with the CIA and then contracted to the NSA. A brilliant computer consultant, he became a whistle-blower against NSA when he became disillusioned with NSA for establishing a "culture of fear" and putting in place what he considered to be "the architecture of oppression". Charged with espionage and theft of Government documents, Snowden fled from the US to Russia, where he now lives.
The film addresses powerfully the question of what is the proper balance between privacy and surveillance. It impressively explores Snowden's life with NSA which includes NSA's video surveillance of Snowden with his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). The real dramatic force of the movie, however, derives from the film's illustration of the extent of influence by NSA to put in place a national security system based on total secrecy. NSA built up stores of information on millions of citizens, irrespective of whether they are "persons of interest", or have done anything wrong. The film shows that the scale of NSA's surveillance was extraordinary.
Pertinent to the entire film, is the potential conflict between the principle of democracy, the preservation of secrecy when required, and the responsible use of technology. The film importantly raises the question - that is left unresolved by the movie - of what ethics are needed to define a commitment to the value of all three. Commandingly, the movie rejects the thesis that victory is best achieved by total secrecy practised in the name of security, and NSA's view that "the modern battlefield is everywhere".
This is not a movie that dazzles with pyrotechnic light-displays of computers at work. Oliver Stone uses human drama to tell the story. There is special force in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's portrayal of Snowden as reserved, cautious and over-controlled. The film captures Snowden's oddities, eccentricities, and conflicts dramatically in an authentic-looking way, and Gordon-Levitt's complex characterisation of Snowden projects him as a person, who is intriguingly enigmatic.
The film makes it perfectly clear that Snowden stole secrets that his Government judged to be important, but Stone has directed his film to show the difficulty of guaranteeing privacy in the computer age, and the abuse of the ideal of national security that NSA happened to achieve. It is a movie that has strong political relevance, and like a lot of the films that Oliver Stone has directed, it communicates firm views about rights to privacy and acting conscientiously. The film is very well-acted and very well-directed, and is thoughtfully provocative in a highly entertaining way.
Peter W. Sheehan is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Released September 22nd., 2016