by Shalomita Maleachi ‘17
Ever since he leaked classified NSA files to the public in May 2013, Edward Snowden’s name has been a constant fixture in the public consciousness. From being named The Guardian’s person of the year and Time’s runner-up person of the year in 2013, to being featured in the songs of artists like Big Data and Thrice, Snowden’s transgressive act has certainly spurred political, cultural, and creative evaluations—both about the information he revealed and his life in general.
Oliver Stone’s newly released movie Snowden explores both these aspects as intertwined. Adapted from the novel The Time of the Octopus, written by Snowden’s Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden focuses on a biographical account of Snowden’s journey from a Special Forces recruit to most notorious whistleblower of the 21st century.
There is a subtlety to Stone’s Snowden—and a necessary one. Often referred to as ‘the most wanted man alive,’ Snowden’s reputation rests on a dangerous fault line. Depending on who you talk to, he is either a traitor or a hero, an enemy of national security or a brave patriot and champion of American values. It would be far too easy to cast Snowden as one or the other. Snowden, it would seem, manages to avoid such simple classifications. Though the bent of the film certainly favors towards a positive reception of Snowden, it avoids a flat definition of his character.
The film—aptly called a biopic—slowly follows Snowden’s gradual shift in political views and growing motivations. Although the movie begins with the decisive moment when Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon Levitt), rendezvouses with journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), the bulk of film focuses via flashbacks. This shows Snowden’s psychological development over the years, leading up his controversial act. Snowden takes its audience on a long walk, where viewers are given a privy glimpse into the complex life of a boy born into a long line of military officers and federal lawyers, a brilliant man troubled by the question of what it means to be loyal to one’s country, and a lover who struggles between the all-consuming stress of a heavy conscience and attentiveness to the person he loves.
Like the cadence of the plot, the filmography of Snowden is likewise spare. Shots are simple and clear, the effects minimal and used mostly for atmospheric purposes to good effect. The casting of Joseph Gordon Levitt as Edward Snowden also aligns with this element of spareness. While this casting can be thought of as a bit of an odd one in terms of faithfulness to appearance (Snowden and Levitt differ quite a bit in terms of build and facial structure), the quality of Joseph Gordon Levitt’s acting captures the soft-spoken yet articulate, somewhat awkward Snowden, impeccably. It would seem that Snowden consistently values an emotive accuracy and complexity over brute visual stimulation.
To some, Oliver Stone’s take on the inherently dramatic life of Edward Snowden may be underwhelming and unexciting. But perhaps this is what is to be welcomed. In the tumultuous discussion and political frenzy that the man has generated, Snowden can be thought of as the calm in the eye of the storm, serving as a quiet reminder us to slow down and pay attention to the complex history that often surrounds our most public and significant actions. Moreover, in the age of the superhero movie, Snowden is a potent counter-narrative, one that investigates what it really takes for an ordinary citizen to do what is extraordinary in a real life situation—and what may ensue afterwards.