“A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take away everything that you have.” – Thomas Jefferson
I don’t know why I thought of that quote and why I prefaced this review with it, but when thinking about the events of this movie (and the events that inspired them), it’s the first thing that hit me. Hopefully the NSA won’t view this as an act of treason and lock me up. If you never hear from me again, you’ll know why. Switching gears though, I’d have to say that it’s been a while since Oliver Stone has given us anything to think about. Yeah, he’s had a few films here and there and I have to admit that Any Given Sunday was enjoyable, but for a man who made his mark with films like JFK, Platoon and Nixon…it’s been a while. I wasn’t too familiar with who Edward Snowden was or what he did, but I remember hearing the name. Being a Maryland resident, I knew he was “local”, but that’s about it. But I took it upon myself to watch Stone’s latest film and have since done research on Snowden and all I can say is…amazing. I won’t prattle on. Let’s get started.
Mild-mannered Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) had aspirations of being in the Army. But a routine drill ended that. The “next best thing” was to serve his country by applying for the CIA. Snowden, intelligent and very computer literate, got the job and impressed his mentor, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). Snowden is good at what he does and is fast-tracked with promotions and assignments. His live-in girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley) is kept in the dark about his job, but is always supportive. It’s not until Snowden is given a peek at a computer program that his world changes. He learns that the Government can spy on anyone, anywhere at any time via the internet. That little webcam you use to Skype, that email or the Facebook post – all viewable by the NSA. Told in flashback, we meet Snowden as he’s telling his story to The Guardian where they’ll take it public.
There’s a lot more to the story than what I wrote above, but that’s the nuts and bolts of it. What we see is how Edward Snowden was ingratiated into this to begin with. What made him tick and what he could and couldn’t talk about, even with his own co-workers. Some view Snowden as a traitor and others as a hero, but he took a risk and his actions have changed the world. Oliver Stone has clearly crafted something here and I find it nearly as compelling as JFK, hands down my favorite Stone film. That’s saying something. The cast all deliver fine performances and Stone has a way of bringing out the best in his actors. One thing I feel worth mentioning is the cameo by Nicholas Cage that shows he’s not totally relegated to B movie films these days. There’s hope for him after all. I know I only scratched the surface of what this movie covers, but it’s one worth seeing and one of the more engaging films I’ve seen in a while. Again, that’s saying something.
Video: How’s it look?
By and large, Snowden is a pretty straight-forward looking film. Presented in a 2.40:1 AVC HD image, there’s really nothing to complain about. There are some sequences that have a surreal look to them, I was reminded of A Beautiful Mind when they try and “visualize” and thereby project them onto screen. It’s hard to put into words. Still, these are few and far between, though I did like some of the effects. The overall look is a bit muted, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s pale skin doesn’t exactly radiate color, though the scenes in Hawaii do give the film a nice injection of light. It looks exactly how you think it would.
Audio: How’s it sound?
The only included audio track is the DTS HD Master Audio that serves its purpose to a tee. After hearing the real Edward Snowden, I’d have to say that Joseph Gordon-Levitt has his mannerism and vocal acuities down to a tee. Dialogue is obviously at the heart of this film, though some of the scenes do make ample use of the surrounds. The front stage is highly active and balances out the soundtrack very nicely. Like the video, it’s a straight-forward track that shouldn’t impress anyone, but it won’t disappoint them either.
Supplements: What are the extras?
Deleted Scenes – Five total, but with the film running 134 minutes, these were wisely cut for pacing issues.
Finding the Truth – An all too brief EPK that plays like a glorified trailer. Scenes from the film are shown along with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and company talking about their respective roles.
Snowden Q & A – This 41 minute segment is actually quite interesting and it’s moderated by Matt Zoller Seitz (editor of RogerEbert.com and author of a book on Oliver Stone). Joining him are actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley and Oliver Stone. The real Edward Snowden via satellite in Moscow is also present. They waste no time getting to the heart of the matter and dish the dirt on what attracted them the to projects as well as some factual questions for Snowden. It’s a great watch, especially after seeing the film.
Audio Commentary* – Supposedly there’s an audio commentary available as a digital extra, but I wasn’t able to access it. Either it’s not active or I’m not intelligent enough to figure it out. I guess that rules me out of a job at the NSA?
The Bottom Line
Putting the subject matter aside, Snowden tells the tale that’s still fresh and relevant in today’s world. Oliver Stone is back in top form with stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley leading the way. The extras are a bit scant, but the Q & A is worth watching. Recommended.