Review: ‘Snowden’ Doesn’t Form A Cohesive Whole

Title: Snowden
Director Oliver Stone
Summary: The NSA’s illegal surveillance techniques are leaked to the public by one of the agency’s employees, Edward Snowden, in the form of thousands of classified documents distributed to the press.

There is a surge of ‘based on a true story’ movies at this time of year. We are moving into the awards season and there isn’t anything Oscar voters love more than a movie that tells them about a real person. I’m not sure Snowden is meant to be an awards movie, though, because it is about technology and cyber security which some young people don’t understand, let alone Oscar voters who have a median age of about 102. Snowden, instead, seems to be pitched as a thriller or spy movie that is based on real events. The tone of the trailer seemed odd but trailers can be deceiving when it comes to the final product.

Snowden tried to imagine the hacking of the NSA by Edward Snowden as a spy thriller to almost laughable results.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt Snowden

It turned out that the odd trailers were not selling us a different movie. Snowden really is filmed and scored like a modern day Bond movie or a Jason Bourne movie. The opening scene in particular was so over the top that I nearly started laughing when the camera zoomed in on a person playing with a rubix cube with one hand. That seems to be the visual shorthand that Hollywood likes to use to make sure the audience knows that the person using that cube is “Very Smart”. It was something I’d expect from Ben Whishaw’s Q from the Daniel Craig James Bond movies and it seemed so out of place in a movie that is supposed to be based on a real events.

Snowden is a movie that falls prey to the idea that it’s true story is somehow not interesting or flashy enough for a mainstream audience so they needed to ‘movie it up’. So there are people looking over their shoulders in crowded areas as they blatantly lie to one another. There are tense phone calls and the implication that they are being watched. There is a scene where a phone rings and everyone stares at it like it’s rigged to explode. The scenes are supposed to be dramatic and instead were coming off strangely funny because none of them fit.

The idea that this story is somehow not interesting enough for a movie is made all the more true when we realize that an amazing documentary was made about this entire situation called Citizenfour. It even won an Oscar, yet director Oliver Stone decided that the general audience wouldn’t like that and shot this like it was a normal Hollywood script. The scenes with Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley) feel like they are coming from a different movie. The film’s tone leaps wildly from what is supposed to be a tense spy thriller, a true story and a romantic comedy complete with a manic pixie dream girl.

Snowden feels like it was made with the intent of making the general public more aware of what the real Edward Snowden did while also making a crowd pleasing blockbuster. There are ways of making that work, and while Snowden might have interesting and even good parts, they don’t all fit to make a cohesive whole.

Kaitlyn Booth
Kaitlyn Booth
Kaitlyn Booth is a writer, film critic, comic lover, and soccer fan based in Salt Lake City. She has covered such events as the Sundance Film Festival, San Diego Comic Con, and New York Comic Con and been a special guest and panelist at Salt Lake Comic Con and FanX. She has a deep fondness for female superheroes and independent film.