Snowden Parent Review

This movie offers a one-sided look Edward Snowden's motivations for leaking classified US documents to the press.

Overall C

This sympathetic drama is based on the life of Edward Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), made famous after he leaked classified US government documents to the media.

Violence B-
Sexual Content C-
Profanity D
Substance Use C

Snowden is rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity.

Movie Review

In June 2013, Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee and IT contractor, leaked an enormous amount of US government classified intelligence information to journalists from the U.K. publication The Guardian, as well as filmmaker Laura Poitras. His decision had a polarizing effect on public opinion.

Was the man a traitor because he exposed the whole country, along with some individuals, to undue risk and harm? Or was he a patriot standing up for fundamental American values? As it turned out, the secretive files he shared revealed that instead of just trying to prevent terrorism, the United States had also been spying on and collecting data from many of its allies and even its own citizens. Discovering the government had been collecting phone call data on virtually everyone helped convince many people that a more appropriate label for Snowden might be “heroic whistleblower”.

Certainly it appears the movie Snowden is hoping the audience will apply the more favorable verdict. Written and directed by Oliver Stone, a man who doesn’t shy away from presenting a focused agenda, this biopic offers a backstory to round out the personality of its protagonist. As well, it features Hollywood A-listers playing the roles of real people, the addition of a few fictitious characters and dramatic dialogue. (These artistic elements weren’t part of Citizenfour, the 2014 documentary Laura Poitras produced from footage taken during her interviews with Snowden.)

Review continues after the break...

The overt push for audience empathy toward Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) begins in the opening minutes. Here we meet the man in Special Forces training. He desperately wants to serve his country, yet he is struggling to complete the grueling physical requirements. When he succumbs to a leg injury, the doctor tells the soldier, “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” Minutes later we view Snowden being interviewed to work at the CIA by Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), a steely-eyed graying employee who presses his candidate for the real reason he wants to be a spy. The young man’s giddy admission that he thinks having top secret clearance would be cool offers clear ironic foreshadowing of what’s ahead.

From here Snowden passes a polygraph and arrives at a CIA training facility for his first day of school. O’Brian gives the small room of new hires a complex computer assignment and, surprise, surprise, Snowden aces the test and wins the award of teacher’s pet. The favorable situation offers privileges including long talks in the woods with his mentor, during which O’Brian does everything he can to convince Ed Snowden that his computer talents are God’s gift to America.

Stone intercuts depictions of Snowden’s stellar career with re-enactments of the now historic 2013 meeting between Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) in a Hong Kong hotel room. After Snowden hands them a memory card containing reams of classified information, the media professionals debate the best way to bring the secret documents into the open, while at the same time offering Snowden as much protection as possible.

The screenplay’s bias for this wonder boy is quite obvious when it never even suggests that there could be two sides to this story. What isn’t as apparent though is why the script includes a needless number of sexual expletives and a sex scene that is too steamy for a US PG-13 rating. Ultimately, these choices limit the audience that will have access to this production.

Looked at simply as a spy thriller, Snowden comes with all the right ingredients—a hero who is willing to put his career and life on the line in his fight against government overlords, and a darling girlfriend (Shailene Woodley) who is usually in tears over her lover’s obsession with his secretive work. But what can’t be forgotten is Snowden isn’t a fictitious character. At the time of this film’s release, his controversial actions are still headline news. Currently sympathetic groups are petitioning President Obama to grant a pardon that would allow Snowden’s return to the US. And this movie comes across as an earnest effort to convince viewers to join the cause. This seems especially ironic given that Snowden’s message to the public appears to be one encouraging them to think more critically about authority figures and hold them to account. Perhaps media should be added to the list of governments and politicians.

Directed by Oliver Stone. Starring Shailene Woodley, Scott Eastwood, Joseph Gordon-Levitt . Running time: 135 minutes. Updated

Get details on profanity, sex and violence in Snowden here.

Snowden Parents Guide

How does this movie’s one-sided approach to this topic fit typical American cinematic templates? Who’s the good guy? Who is the bad guy? Could a more balanced approach still have resulted in an engaging movie? Is it possible both sides of this issue have faults?

Can any movie accurately reflect the facts of a true story? What technical devices (music, lighting, etc.) does Oliver Stone use in this production to bolster his argument in favor of Snowden? Do you think a film like this can affect influence opinion?

How do you feel about Snowden and his motives when he says: “When I left Hawaii, I lost everything. I had a stable life, stable love, family, future. I lost that life but I’ve gained a new one, and I am incredibly fortunate. And I think the greatest freedom I’ve gained is that I no longer have to worry about what happens tomorrow, because I’m happy with what I’ve done today.” (This quote can also be found here.) What causes you would be willing to sacrifice for?