December 30, 2017
Snowden (2016)
Grade: 53/100

Director: Oliver Stone
Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Nicolas Cage

What it's about. A biopic on Edward Snowden, the Federal government coding contractor who blew the whistle on Homeland Security spying on U.S. citizens, then fled to Russia to avoid prosecution.

Snowden's early life is dispensed with quickly, and we move to demonstrations of Snowden's brilliant career at the CIA. Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) quickly impresses instructors Rhys Ifans and Nicolas Cage. He meets beautiful photographer Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), his girlfriend for the remainder of the film. Snowden quits his CIA job to become an NSA contractor, a move that probably doubled his salary (something overlooked by the screenplay).

Snowden learns that the U.S. government is spying on millions of U.S. citizens, and collecting intelligence on their lives unrelated to any potential criminal acts. He becomes paranoid that the government is spying on him and Lindsay, as well. Snowden illegally gathers data on a flash drive and turns it over to left-wing reporter Zachary Quinto, causing a political sensation.

How others will see it. Snowden was a box office disappointment, and it was mostly ignored by film festivals, although the Razzie Awards did "nominate" the hammy Nicolas Cage as Worst Supporting Actor.

But the film is approaching 100K user votes at, and has a fairly high user rating at the website. Women over 45 grade it 7.6 out of 10, with their sympathy for Snowden increased by his romance and epilepsy. They're not alone: the user reviews favor Snowden's cause as righteous, and praise Stone for his dramatic presentation.

How I felt about it. The irony of Edward Snowden is that the great fighter for the right of privacy in America ends up hiding from Federal prosecution in Russia, where not only is there no right of privacy, but those who oppose the regime can be imprisoned or murdered, with their property confiscated. Snowden has become a tool of Putin to demonstrate that the U.S. government is somehow worse than Russia's.

The case for Snowden as a hero would be greater if he had faced the music in a public American trial, like John T. Scopes in the 1925 "Monkey Trial", and made that case about the need for the government to secure a court order to spy on a particular John Q. Public. Snowden's claim that he would instead be prosecuted by a military court is preposterous.

Snowden's premise that a court order is needed first conflicts with the realities of a post-911 world. If an American citizen makes a large purchase of assault weapons, as if preparing for a terrorist act, it seems unlikely that an NSA operative could wait potentially days for a court order before investigating further. It is inevitable that such a court order would be a rubber stamp; the Department of Homeland Security would otherwise effectively be able to investigate only a handful of Americans at any time.

Nonetheless, Snowden comes off better than Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, who dumped confidential government documents en masse without regard for potential consequences, such as the outing of U.S. undercover agents working abroad.

As for the movie, it is annoying that Snowden is presented as this incredible genius, as if his purported superior intelligence ensures that his undeniably criminal actions were morally just. Snowden's epileptic seizures are presented for dramatic effect, and his romance with Lindsay Mills is long on bickering and reconciliation. Some scenes, such as a top N.S.A. executive looming across a giant screen in Big Brother fashion, are clearly fictional.