Toronto Film Review: Oliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’

Snowden Movie Joseph Gordon-Levitt Shailene Woodley
Courtesy of Open Road

Oliver Stone's docudrama, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, is the director's most exciting — and relevant — movie in years.

Let’s be honest: Oliver Stone hasn’t made an Oliver Stone movie that mattered in more than 20 years. The firebrand urgency that once defined his name — the way he directed films that seized the zeitgeist, that drove the conversation, that inspired controversy because of how they leapt into the drama of history — has, for too long, been trapped in the past. Which is not to say that Stone hasn’t tried. He has made films that bent over backwards to be topical, like the earnest and sentimental 9/11 requiem “World Trade Center,” or the goofy provocative political cartoon “W.,” or the cautionary-but-behind-the-curve financial thriller “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” One or two of these movies “found an audience,” but none found a purpose; even when they managed to connect at the box office, they disappeared from the public consciousness like puffs of smoke.

But Stone’s exile in the desert of overheated irrelevance has now ended. “Snowden” isn’t just the director’s most exciting work since “Nixon” (1995) — it’s the most important and galvanizing political drama by an American filmmaker in years. Telling the story of Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who became a whistleblower and fugitive by leaking documents that revealed the vast, spidery, paradigm-shifting scope of the new American surveillance state, Stone has made a movie that asks the audience to look, almost convulsively, at what this issue really means, and at who Edward Snowden really is.

You might think you already know. Maybe you decided, a while back, that Snowden is a “traitor,” or that he went too far in leaking documents and revealing NSA secrets. Or maybe you saw “Citizenfour,” the 2014 Laura Poitras documentary that presented the interview Snowden gave just as he was going rogue, and you decided he’s one of the heroes of our time. But whether you’re pro-Snowden, anti-Snowden, or somewhere in between, Stone’s movie is sure to deepen your response to his actions, and to the whole evolution of the American intelligence community in the age of meta-technology. “Snowden” isn’t leftist-conspiratorial propaganda (though some may accuse it of being that). It’s a riveting procedural docudrama that takes a deep dive into what surveillance has become. In doing so, it’s a movie that — no small thing — makes Oliver Stone matter again.

It helps that Snowden, played with crisp magnetism by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is the furthest thing from a crusader, or even a liberal. He’s a straitlaced, mild-mannered conservative brainiac who loves his country so much that he wants to devote his life to defending it. When we meet him, in 2004, he’s in basic training in the United States Army Reserve (it’s 9/11 that inspires him to join up), but he’s not really the athletic military type — he goes through the grueling exercises wearing clunky tortoise-shell glasses — and when he leaps off a bunk and breaks his leg, it’s because the pounding training has already slowly shattered his delicate bones. His career as a combat warrior is over before it begins. So he goes for the next best thing: a slot in the CIA, where the fight for U.S. security is already playing out on the battleground of the future — namely, cyberspace.

Snowden, terse and owlishly square, now with rectangle frames that make him look a little hipper, is attracted to the Agency the way that so many of its members have been, out of a combination of duty and a desire for excitement. During his interview with Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), who will become his mentor, he answers a question by admitting that he thinks it would be “cool” to have top-level security clearance — which turns out to be the wrong thing to say. For all his eagerness, and despite his clean resume, he’s told that in another era, he probably wouldn’t make the cut. But before he is anything else, Edward is a dazzlingly gifted computer scientist: a prodigy, a geek, a hacker. That gives him the ideal equipment to be a soldier in the next war. In the old days (i.e., the ’70s), a CIA analyst was a desk jockey, standing behind the field agents, but in “Snowden” cyberspace is the field. Corbin tells Edward that 20 years from now, “Iraq will be a hellhole no one cares about,” and that the whole war on terror is a sideshow. The real conflict, he says, will be with China and Russia, fought with rogue computer worms and malware. “Snowden” is the ultimate true-life hacker thriller.

The movie doesn’t have the kaleidoscopic dazzle of Stone’s great ’90s films (“JFK,” “Natural Born Killers”), but it has his heady propulsive fever. It’s framed by the “Citizenfour” interview, which Stone re-stages as a piece of verité suspense, set in the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, with Edward gliding through the lobby like an egghead Jason Bourne, fiddling with his telltale Rubik’s Cube. Melissa Leo plays Poitras as tough, rumpled, and maternal, and Zachary Quinto, all driven neurotic fire (even his flat hair is intense), is Glenn Greenwald, the fiercely independent journalist who interviewed Snowden for Poitras’ camera. You get the feeling, more than you did watching “Citizenfour,” that there was an honest terror beneath the proceedings — that given the subject of surveillance, the CIA might have burst in at any moment. But it’s not just about their safety. The stakes are so high because the theme of the interview, and the issue of whether they can publish it in the London-based newspaper The Guardian, is momentous. This is their one and only chance to expose the truth before Snowden disappears.

The movie cuts back and forth between the interview and everything that led up to it. At the Hill, the CIA training center in Virginia, Snowden dazzles his teachers and befriends an Agency veteran (a warmly understated Nicolas Cage) who’s been put out to pasture, sitting in his office that’s like a museum of ancient and legendary tradecraft equipment. He and Edward discuss Enigma machines, and the very first computer (which is there), and we’re cued to realize that the entire history of computers is, on some level, a history of spying. Gordon-Levitt does a meticulous impersonation of the Snowden manner: clipped and impeccable, his articulate, logical voice always trying to touch the reality of whatever he’s talking about. He’s certainly a geek, but with an important qualifier: He’s cool as a cucumber — free of any visible anxiety (or anger). At times, he’s like a very friendly automaton, but it’s not like he doesn’t have passion; as we’ll see, it just takes a lot to get him riled.

He also thinks he’s got everything figured out. On a dating site called Geek-Mate, Edward meets Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), a local girl who’s sweet-natured and hot-tempered at the same time. They connect from their first date, but they’ve got major differences. Lindsay, a little aimless but shrewd and informed, thinks the Iraq War is a corrupt disaster, whereas Edward believes he grasps the bigger picture: the defense of the United States, and the things that go into that, which liberals shield themselves from knowing (even though they want the benefits of protection, too). Essentially, he’s making the Dick Cheney argument, but it’s bracing, in an Oliver Stone film, to see that POV represented by the movie’s hero. Edward and Lindsay’s political differences have a touch of screwball-comedy friction. When she figures out that he’s working for the Agency after having traced where his message came from, he says, “You know how to run an IP trace?” For him, that’s practically a love lyric. Woodley gives a performance of breathtaking dimension: As the movie goes on, she makes Lindsay supportive and selfish, loving and stricken.

Edward is assigned to the National Security Agency, the division of U.S. intelligence devoted, essentially, to data-gathering. He’s dispatched to different locales (Geneva, Tokyo, Hawaii), and Lindsay goes to live with him in each one. But the job tears away at their relationship, because he isn’t allowed to utter a word about what he does. Still, that works fine — until he starts to question what he’s doing. Because he has no one to ask the questions to. So he starts to implode.

In Switzerland, one of his colleagues, a deceptively laidback dude named Gabriel (Ben Schnetzer), shows Edward something he doesn’t technically have security clearance for: the CIA program known as XKeyscore. It’s essentially a search engine that can take you…anywhere. Behind any wall of privacy. But wait a minute, says Edward, what about FISA? That’s the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which dictates the rules of surveillance and says, in essence, that you need a warrant each time you cross one of those walls. Gabriel explains that FISA is “a big-ass rubber stamp,” because the court that controls it is a government outfit handing out rote permission slips.

At that point, he shows Edward the “optic nerve,” something that couldn’t have existed even 20 years ago. The intelligence community, Gabriel demonstrates, can now enter any home right through its computer or phone — through the webcam, or the screen itself. The old notion of “bugging” (a microphone hidden in the lamp!) has become something out of the Stone Age. The whole world is now connected, via computer. And so is the data, including texts and videos and e-mails. The intelligence community has access to it all, having fused itself, essentially, with the servers of the biggest Internet companies (Google, Apple, etc.).

“Snowden” has a perilously unfolding sense of revelation. The film’s moral and logistical brilliance is that what Edward — and the audience — learns, bit by bit, is not that there’s a cabal of sinister bad guys sitting in a room somewhere, plotting how to take away your privacy. The data-gathering has evolved organically, and maybe inevitably, with the technology. And yet it’s creepy (to put it mildly). At home, Edward puts a piece of tape over his webcam, because he realizes that someone could be looking at him (or Lindsay). He’s not paranoid; he’s just enlightened. The dialogue in “Snowden” is often dense with technical jargon, but instead of distancing us, the authenticity of the language reels us in. There’s something dramatic in how all the talk is about shrouding things.

The spies behind the computer curtain can touch the whole world, but the more they look at it, the more disconnected from its reality they become. “Snowden” peels this cyber-voyeuristic onion, layer by layer, until we’re watching, on a live feed, gruesome drone attacks in the Middle East, where the targets have been identified by their cell phones. A bomb goes off — a moving car gets vaporized — and if there’s collateral damage (like, say, the target’s family), so be it. No one in the control room cares, because the ideology at hand (eliminate the terrorists) has been heightened with a death-by-joystick ease that comes from staring at people through technology all day long, until they become at once right there and totally unreal. It’s the sociopathology of screens.

Edward takes all of this in, and it horrifies him, but he doesn’t know what to do about it. He’s not a rebel, and questioning authority in even the tiniest way has no place in the culture of intelligence. At one point, he resigns, but he is lured back in, and by the time he lands in Hawaii, he has begun to assemble a bigger picture. He shows his NSA associates — a fascinating club of young turks — how there’s twice as much data-gathering going on in the U.S. as there is in Russia. He knows there’s something wrong with that; it’s spying evolving into Big Brother. Stone stages a fantastic scene in which Edward talks to Corbin, his boss and mentor, on a giant screen, and Rhys Ifans’ face looms up like some CIA version of the Wizard of Oz. He’s terrifying, especially when he reveals that he heard that conversation between Edward and his colleagues. He knows whether or not Lindsay is having an affair; he knows everything, and the cozy violation of it all is queasy. By the time Edward decides to act, it’s because he can’t not act. Stone creates a powerful wake-up call.

Is he saying that there’s a conspiracy at work? If so, the movie makes the point that it’s a conspiracy we have all, naively, colluded in, frittering away our privacy through our addiction to technology. Yet that hardly means we asked the government to know everything about us, all the time. “Snowden” frames the issue so that we can frame it ourselves. The movie has a deep-focus perspective, and a spine-tingling immediacy. It ends with the real Snowden, who Stone interviewed in Moscow, where he is still living under asylum. He’s presented in a glow of heroism, followed by headlines about how much influence he has had (the new laws restricting mass gathering of data, etc.). Yet Snowden’s presence only reminds us of how unfinished this story is. The real message of “Snowden” is that surveillance is a Pandora’s Box. You may leave the movie grateful for everything that Edward Snowden brought to light, but also wondering if that box can ever be closed.

Toronto Film Review: Oliver Stone's 'Snowden'

Reviewed at the Toronto Film Festival (Gala), Sept. 9, 2016. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 134 MIN.


An Open Road Films release of an Endgame Entertainment, Wild Bunch, KrautPack Entertainment, Onda Entertainment Vendian Entertainment production. Producers: Moritz Borman, Eric Kopeloff, Philip Schulz-Deyle, Fernando Sulichin. Executive producers: Max Arvelaiz, Michael Bassick, Douglas Hansen, José Ibáñez, Peter Lawson, Serge Lobo, Bahman Naraghi, Tom Ortenberg, James Stern, Christopher Woodrow.


Director: Oliver Stone. Screenplay: Stone, Kieran Fitzgerald. Camera (color, widescreen): Anthony Dod Mantle. Editors: Alex Marquez, Lee Percy.


Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Joely Richardson, Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, Ben Schnetzer.

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  1. signalfire6 says:

    I look forward to the day past Secretaries of State and future Presidents are held to the same standard as CIA and NSA contractors, both of whom signed similar security documents. I’m quite sure Edward Snowden could recite his to you from memory as well as the phrase ‘all enemies foreign and domestic’ but Hillary told Judicial Watch twenty times over, she couldn’t remember… Hillary left highly classified information sitting on a virtual park bench for over four years; Snowden carefully handed his over to respected journalists who worked with the US government to be sure no one would be harmed (except the lying Clapper et al) and very little of what he absconded with (necessary for proof of the magnitude of the crimes) was ever released. We still don’t know who grabbed Hillary’s information or whether the newly elected President will be eminently blackmailable. Guess when you have enough money and power, it’s not treason or espionage so much as it’s just ‘extreme carelessness’; nothing to see here, move along now.

  2. Nigel Goring says:

    Just saw the Film, well most of it missed the end due to companions need to leave, will catch up. I am now researching the facts of the film. The main thing going through my mind immediately is, IF the USA infiltrated and seeded Japan’s software/hardware so to be able to close them down if necessary in some future event. What did/has Japan got to say about this? Done about it? is the stuff still there? Or has it been identified by USA or found by Japan and removed. To say nothing about all the other countries that were mentioned?? I heard plenty during the time of Snowden release etc. but not heard any huge outcry by any country, particularly Japan in the aftermath. Did I miss something or was this not Factual.

  3. This sounds like the most important film of the YEAR.

  4. This is the only kind of film that gets into the big tier 1 film festivals these days. So called “independent” films. Gotta have star value as a director AND have stars attached or you have no chance of getting in.

  5. patrik says:

    Oliver Stone pictures bad shade democracy. what is it democracy? democracy is deal subject(civil) – state. what is it democracy state? it is state accept liberty subject(civil)

  6. jfafilms says:

    Great to hear Oliver Stone’s back. I was hoping it was finally the case

  7. Steve Barr says:

    First Sully , now Snowden . Maybe now Oliver Stone will make his long delayed movie about Smedley Butler . A long forgotten American hero .

  8. IT--II--IT says:

    ‘Former’ YALIE, and SON of Wall Street USURY – — Oliver ‘CAP–STONE”
    working ‘reality creation’ back up for the INTEL RUN ‘Snowed–in’ psy op.

  9. Love the fact the emphasis from the MSM and US Public is on Snowden and not the illegal state surveillance and hacking of ordinary citizens, lying under oath by the leaders of the US intellgence services, corporate collusion to include backdoors and vulnerabilities in their products.

    Freedom and Democracy ?

  10. Michael Anthony says:

    If Snowden “loves” his country so much, then why is he in Putin’s hands. Anyone who believes that Putin just opened the door to him and has not made him do something in return, is naive.

    And what of wiki leaks? Now, they’ve dumped material about who is gay in countries where it means execution. That’s noble? Ha!

    Both decided what was best for all, on their own. Just as bad as the government deciding what is best. Sorry, but they both are no better than the groups they fought against. They duped Manning, while they both sought “refuge”.

    • Putin didn’t ask for any special favors, and isn’t now (Snowden is openly critical of Russia’s surveillance). Have you read up on how Snowden ended up in Russia? The US revoked his passport the day before he left Hong Kong. He couldn’t leave Russia because he couldn’t legally travel after arriving in the country. We also know for a fact that claims of Snowden meeting Russians in Hong Kong is false. A Canadian lawyer helped him stay with illegal immigrants so that he’d be off the grid.

      Also, here’s the problem with your “they decided what was best for everyone” argument: the US government didn’t give you a choice. It simply decided that mass surveillance, backdoor internet access and other intrusions on privacy were necessary, and that it could conduct this under a layer of secrecy that made it largely unaccountable for its actions. Snowden’s move will always be better than the government’s, because he actually gave you the chance to make an informed decision. There are surveillance reforms that can be directly attributed to Snowden’s leaks.

      Manning is different, because her leak was indiscriminate. Well-intentioned, but indiscriminate. Snowden took care to vet leaks and made sure that he wasn’t putting lives at risk.

  11. Hollywood Mark says:

    Geri – haunted by that age difference thingy. Movie is unwatchable because of it. LOL. Get a new agent, honey.

  12. Geri McCall-Barrath says:

    In typical Hollywood error the age difference between Levitt and Woodley, is 11 years, while the real age difference between Snowden and Mills is five years. Why oh why can’t they cast age-appropriate actresses?

  13. bill20 says:

    TIFF has to do a better job of including all films into it’s line-up. The absence of faith-based movies here is a glaring omission of an otherwise good film festival. 84% of all Canadians have faith and to simply say, “You’re not worthy of having films of faith” is a slap in the face to all us.

    • Michael Anthony says:

      The post by Michael says it all. There are no faith based films of merit. The last one to come close is “Passion”. And what kind of faith films do you want Bill? Canada may have religion, but it’s also a melting pot. Would you count a film on the Koran? Buddha? If not, then your contradicting your own post.

    • Michael says:

      Well…..I’m not trying to step on your toes but a lot of faith based movies just aren’t very good.

  14. harry georgatos says:

    It has become rare to find cyber spy films like SNOWDEN in today’s market place. Oliver Stone is a living legend when it comes to politically charged films and there hasn’t been a director like Stone since Costa-Gavras directed Z and STATE OF SEIGE in the late ’60’s. There should be more adult spy films in the ilk of SNOWDEN then all these teenage spy blockbusters masquerading as spy films.

  15. jhs39 says:

    It would be a whole lot easier to respect Mr. Snowden if he accepted the consequences of his actions and didn’t hide behind the shirttails of Vladimir Putin, who is one of the most monstrous figures on the national stage. If Snowden were Russian he would already be dead. Even if he fled to Europe or the United States he would be dead. And Snowden hides under that monster’s protection. How can anybody sympathize with someone so cowardly as to do that?

    • He is accepting the consequences of his actions. Do you think a man who’s against unethical surveillance would want to live in Putin’s Russia? And remember how Chelsea Manning got railroaded with a highly secretive trial? (Whether or not she’s right, there’s no question that the US kept things secret and stacked the deck.) Snowden’s cause gains more from him being in exile than captured and never heard from again.

      There’s no glory in handing yourself over to officials whose main goal is to silence you, to prevent the truth from getting out. So long as he’s still (relatively) free, he’s winning his war.

    • jms says:

      > if he accepted the consequences of his actions

      You know… he has said he would come back to the US, that he _wants_ to come back to the US, if he would get a fair trial. Being charged under the espionage act kinda removes that whole fair trial bit, as it doesn’t give room for the *reason* something was released, only if it was.

      And the reason was the whole point of his release of the information in the first place.

      > And Snowden hides under that monster’s protection.

      Well, you can thank the US State Dept. for that. They waited until he left Hong Kong to pull his Passport (a couple weeks after the release of information), so he ended up stuck in Russia, which IIRC, was just supposed to be a layover.

      • jms says:

        Personally, I agree. But, our personal feelings are irrelevant to what the law is. And disclosure of top secret information is a crime; With good reason for it being so (Ignoring the *over* classification of… everything now days).

        But, being railroaded under the Espionage Act is just… wrong on so many levels. It was clearly not espionage, as a foreign power was not the recipient, but journalists were. Notifying the public that their Government, was basically breaking the law and lying about what they were doing was the reason. If that isn’t a good enough intent, I don’t know what is. But of course, if we were applying the law consistently, there would be so many more people charged with espionage that the government wouldn’t function (i.e. The purposeful release of classified information as “leaks,” since it helps your position out.).

        Intent is part of the definition of espionage under law, “with intent or reason to believe that the information is to be used,” but the Espionage Act of 1917 removes intent from consideration. The only consideration is if classified information was released or not.

      • Kevin says:

        Why should he get a trial did nothing wrong he is a real American hero!!!!

    • Mike M says:

      “Even if he fled to Europe or the United States he would be dead…”

      It would be a whole lot easier to respect your post if you hadn’t answered your own question. Are you stupid or does killing yourself equate to an acceptable consequence of your own personal actions?

      Either answer doesn’t place you in particularly good standing to be taken in the slightest bit seriously.

      • Liber T. Phoral says:

        Slavery was legal once too. Would you support slavery as long as it was legal under the law? Would you demonize someone who broke the law to free slaves?

      • jms says:

        Would help if I could complete a thought…

        When the internal “whistleblower” paths all lead to “If he brought up the constitutionality of the program I would have stopped listening,” what outcome do you expect to happen? For him to just quietly accept the unconstitutional programs happening and so break the oath he took?[1]

        And this Oath that must be taken is why I think there should be a much larger fall out from this than will ever happen. The Constitution is seen as a road block to work around instead of something to uphold.

      • jms says:

        He also took an oath that states “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” above all other requirements. When the internal “whistleblower” paths all lead to “If he brought up the constitutionality of the program I would have stopped listening.”

        So, no… he _may_ have signed a contract with his employer, but he would have still taken that oath. That oath trumps the piddly employment contract. Or are you saying a contract overrides speaking of unconstitutional acts of the government?

      • joe says:

        It does not matter what his reason was. 1) he was not in the place to do what did and 2) he signed a document stating he would not do what he did. So his reasons do not apply.

        When you sign a contract to buy a car you just can’t stop making car payment and be able to keep the car just because you have a good reason.

        That is of course if you believe everything that this mans says is true. Which I am sorry the facts don’t support it. Its just come up with a very cleaver way to get sympathy for his illegal actions in hopes of walking away without punishment.

    • Rebecca B says:

      @jhs39, I think the argument could be made that living his life in exile – and quite possibly in constant fear – IS the consequence of his actions. Or does he have to face your specific consequences for them to count?

      Have you never heard the old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”? It explains Putin’s willingness to offer asylum to Snowden, and the desire to survive explains Snowden’s willingness to accept the offer. I’m no fan of Putin, but what would you do in Snowden’s position?

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