It’s billed as a “dramatization of real events that occurred between 2004-2013,” and indeed, it is a competent and mildly interesting bio-pic. Stone opens in Hong Kong in June 2013, where Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is holed up in a hotel and coordinating a data release with filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Guardian correspondent Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). Their querying of Snowden establishes a series of flashbacks depicting how Snowden spent nine years in the world of government surveillance, growing increasingly troubled by what he saw. There’s also a fair amount of material on the collateral damage incurred in his relationship with girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley).
Despite the film’s perfunctory nature, Stone bites off a lot with Snowden: It’s a character study, a romance, an espionage thriller, a docudrama and a policy paper. There are some big themes in play: how war on terror created both a need for increased surveillance and the latitude to abuse the system; what access the government should have to digital data, with or without our knowledge and consent; and what obligations do concerned citizens have to speak up, and at what costs? As such, the film does a lot of swiveling, and cuts corners with a jumble of drone-strike footage, news clips, a PowerPoint chart or two and some clunky on-the-nose dialogue.
It’s admittedly a tough hill to climb. Three years ago, most people met these revelations with a collectively shrug, even when they were fresh. And consumer convenience continues to trump concerns about privacy and who might be invading it. The film begins with prologue in which Stone himself holds up a smartphone and warns how using such a device can compromise our privacy, and will be “our undoing.” Then, he asks us to turn it off during the film so we don’t annoy other patrons, which is obviously the No. 1 problem with phone use. The PSA wraps up with another voice assuring us that “you’re welcome to turn your phone back on after the movie”
… because you have been away from your phone for two hours!
So, good luck Mr. Stone and Ed Snowden and everybody else trying to educate viewers about the enormous and grave risks inherent in using modern technology. The battle appears lost before the film even starts.