Snowden (2016) Movie Review

By: Hawk Ripjaw (Three Beers) –

Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) loves his country. When he is discharged from the military due to a leg injury that is literally never mentioned again, he explores a job working for the CIA. One of the interview questions asked of him is “Do you think America is the greatest country on Earth?” While at the CIA, Corbin attracts the attention of recruiter Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) due to his apparently superhuman intelligence and ability to finish a 5-hour test in 38 minutes. O’Brian works to get Snowden a good job in the agency while failed whistleblower Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage) takes Snowden under his own wing. As Snowden continues to accept positions throughout the CIA, he starts to notice some of the shady things the agnecy is willing to do, the massive database that can access secured Facebook accounts and turn on webcams, and the NSA’s ability to find anyone on the web through their extensive data collection. So he starts secretly telling two journalists and a documentary filmmaker about it. 

He also argues with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) a lot.

A Toast

Stone directs his actors well, with the obvious standout being Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden himself. Gordon-Levitt recreates the whistleblower’s distinctive voice so well there are times where it’s difficult to tell them apart. Ifans is also great as a menacing O’Brian as is Woodley as Lindsay Mills. Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, and Tom Wilkinson round out the cast as the reporters Snowden leaked information to.

Snowden isn’t short on spy-movie cliches and your mileage will vary based on how much you enjoy these reheated tropes, but Stone sells them well and the movie is shot cleanly with frequent overlays of data and code reflecting onto glasses and faces and gimmicky-but-fun shots of clearly-fake computer screens. 


Beer Two

One of the taglines for the movie states “You don’t have to pick a side. But you will.” Unfortunately you kind of do have to pick a side, because the movie does it for you. By painting the events in a completely biased way, Stone spoon-feeds his audience the notion that Snowden is a spectacular, flawless hero, standing up against a profoundly corrupt government. Depending on who you are, Snowden is either a traitor or a hero, but there’s no effort to cater to the former and thus the film is closed off to any sort of discussion. O’Brian, during one conversation, states that Americans do not object to surveillance because they are comfortable with that sacrifice in exchange for more security. That’s about as far as the film goes with that argument. An exploration of those options would have made for a much meatier picture, not to mention there’s already plenty of fiction filler that doesn’t amount to much.

Beer Three

Snowden is at least half a decade too early. Edward Snowden’s story isn’t over yet. With his visa in Russia set to expire shortly, the FBI continuing to tussle with tech companies over customer information, and many Americans calling for Barack Obama to pardon Snowden before his final day in office, there are still unwritten pages in the whistleblower’s life that make the movie feel somewhat incomplete. To extend things out to two hours, there is a wealth of plot involving Snowden’s relationship with Lindsay and a number of other eye-rolling embellishments while the release of the files and Snowden’s asylum to Russia is crammed into the last 10 minutes. 



Snowden ended up being somewhat difficult to review. As a film taken at face value, and if this were a purely fictional narrative, it can be fairly entertaining. As a dramatization of real life events, it will end up being unsatisfying, particularly for audiences familiar with the story of Snowden. It’s a low-calorie account of events that are barely in the past.  While Stone does add details that weren’t in the documentary CitizenFour, they feel as though Stone is playing things far too safe and doesn’t want to explore any of the complex implications of the NSA surveillance. It’s fine as a movie, but if the Oliver Stone from 30 years ago made this it would have been great.


Snowden (2016)Drinking Game

Do a Shot: every time Snowden and Lindsay argue.

Take a Drink: whenever someone says “CIA” or “NSA.”

Do a Shot: for every Christ metaphor given to Snowden.

Do a Shot: whenever Snowden notices something shady.

About Hawk Ripjaw

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