** SPOILERS **
There's a line in Oliver Stone's JFK quoted by Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) during his marathon courtroom filibuster: "A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government." The uneven but riveting Snowden is in some ways a spiritual successor to JFK, wherein Oliver Stone returns to his theme of one man compelled to air truths inconvenient to forces in power at great risk to himself. Snowden dramatizes the life and deeds of Edward Joseph Snowden (embodied with clockwork-like precision by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the controversial former CIA programmer and NSA contractor who copied and leaked classified information about the NSA numerous secret global surveillance programs to the Guardian and mainstream press in 2013. Part techno-thriller, part relationship drama, and part heist, Snowden urgently presents the reasons why Edward Snowden chose to blow the whistle on the ability of governments worldwide to spy on its citizens without legal cause for suspicion, yet Stone and Snowden feel coldly remote and oddly restrained, only baring their teeth without dramatically going for the jugular.
Snowden leaps about from Edward Snowden's 2013 Hong Kong meetings with reporters from the Guardian and filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), whose documentary Citizenfour about Snowden won an Academy Award, and Snowden's years leading up to committing treason under the Espionage Act and his subsequent escape and refuge in Russia today. Stone and Gordon-Levitt humanize Snowden as a young computer genius lacking a high school diploma and suffering from epilepsy who, after being discharged from the military due to injury, was recruited into the CIA's global communications division. As Snowden's mentors in the CIA and NSA, Rhys Ifans and later Timothy Olyphant are presented as decidedly cynical and sinister, citing the usual tropes of the global war on terrorism as justification for what Snowden summarizes as the preservation and continuation of the United States' global interests in economic and cultural dominance. After being stationed in Sweden, Japan, and finally Oahu as an NSA contractor participating in and writing the programs allowing for the scope and breadth of governmental secret global surveillance, Snowden's crisis of conscience compels him to smuggle thousands of documents and abscond to Hong Kong to leak the information to the mainstream press.
Stone and his co-screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald meet the daunting challenge of sorting through and making the voluminous amount of esoteric data involved in Edward Snowden's story accessible to the audience. Stone is decidedly in his wheelhouse delivering cinematic exposition as he combines crackerjack editing with Snowden narrating the insidious acts of the NSA and making his case against the clear-cut violation of the ordinary citizen's right to privacy. One of the faults in our Snowden lies in the love story between Snowden and his real life partner of ten years Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). Despite the grueling pressures of attempting to maintain a relationship while your work life is shrouded in secrecy, Gordon-Levitt's Snowden seems to have a more enticing chemistry with his keyboard than he does with Woodley's petulant Mills. Snowden can be accused of glossing over the criminality of Edward Snowden's actions, asking the audience instead to judge the man by his intent, and what blowing the whistle on the NSA ultimately cost him. Snowden's secret weapon ultimately is Edward Snowden himself, who appears in the final minutes of the movie, a welcome sight. Hero? Traitor? Whatever you think about Edward Snowden -- or about anything -- Snowden convinces that if you type it in an email, text it to a friend, speak it on your cellphone, or post it on the Internet, someone you don't know is seeing or hearing it, your privacy settings be damned.