(Photo by Jurgen Olczyk, courtesy of Open Road Films via


Somewhere, there has to be a threshold for dramatization when bringing a true story to a feature film.  Composite characters, plot devices, dramatic license, and artistic flourishes are understandably necessary in the effort to condense and create an entertaining final product fit for ticket buyers.  Lay the dramatization on too thick and the film loses focus on the facts and messages that audience came to see and should be hearing.  

That is the critical deficiency possessed by Oliver Stone’s “Snowden.”  Even if the filmmaker and the titular exiled former spy very well end up on the right side of history someday, Stone’s film is one-sided, unbalanced, and downright sensationalizing in painting a hero that can conceivably do no wrong.  No one is that squeaky clean.  Even if you don’t know the full Edward Snowden dossier, this is a 134-minute vanity piece disguised as a expose lecture.  In Stone’s hands, this should be no surprise.

“Snowden” fancies itself as an all-encompassing, self-professed retelling of Edward Snowden’s career history told by the man himself holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room to The Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) who would break the story to the world in 2013.  Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Snowden begins as a true conservative believer in national allegiance, someone inspired by 9/11 to make a difference.  After a medical discharge from the U.S. Army, the analytically smart computer whiz and self-professed nerd earns acceptance into the CIA at age 23.

Steered and pushed by many morally questionable handlers, trainers, peers, superiors, and puppeteers (including Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Ben Schnetzer, Timothy Olyphant, and Scott Eastwood), Edward enters the complex world of digital global surveillance and cybersecurity at the global level.  For the next seven years, he works at an alphabet’s worth of acronym agencies, both government and private, in a travel brochure’s worth of foreign and domestic job posts as a web strategist in different capacities.  Away from his secretive and classified work, Edward is linked to his loyal and head-turning liberal girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), who accepts his need for secrecy and weathers the stress he brings home.

More and more, Edward becomes informed on the questionable and intrusive tracking, legal manipulation, and data collection being secretly conducted by the U.S. government on not only foreign threats, but its own citizens without formal warrants, court orders, or proper search-and-seizure procedures.  With each new assignment and project, “Snowden” increases the tension on how the work Edward sees happening, including the misaligned use of his own program creations, begins to compromise his values on privacy and personal freedoms.  It all boils over, when he decides to leave it all behind and famously blow the whistle, releasing classified documentation detailing invasive government overreach that shocked the world.

To the film’s credit, Joseph Gordon-Levitt fully commits to a commanding lead performance, arguably one of his best of his career.  He channels Snowden’s look, voice, and mild-mannered personality traits, giving the man tremendous internal and external layers that swing from steely determination to fraying paranoia.  Other than occasional moments with Shailene Woodley, no one behind Levitt on the bill is operating at that high level.  The supporting cast is a bloated troupe of one-dimensional antagonists and single-voiced bleeding hearts that all perpetuate a self-important language of either keystroked techno mumbo-jumbo or preachy political prophecy speeches.  

Stone’s film is a 100% staunch vote for Edward Snowden as a soaring and resolute patriot.  Any high drama still has him coming out golden afterwards.  Every written and filmed moment in “Snowden” is a purposeful and calculated measure of extremely sympathetic hero worship.  From the central romance all the way to the walk-off standing ovation and bluntly cloying Peter Gabriel end credits song specially written for this movie, the volume of the pedestal-placing and monument-building is terribly effusive.

Since we know Edward Snowden’s status today, there is little to no peril, challenge, or surprise in this film.  Because his storied history is readily available (or previously documented to an Academy Award-winning level by the “Citizenfour” documentary two years ago), “Snowden” feels little more than a dressed-up, uninteresting, and forgettable TV movie with lesser production values that pale in comparison to the days when Robert Richardson ran the camera and John Williams led the orchestra.  

There was a time Oliver Stone took risks and punched harder with his filmmaking style and history-challenging investigation efforts through compelling dramatization.  The 70-year-old self-described dramatist used to stir provocative emotions and drop jaws with grand revelations.  Those days feel like a distant memory.

LESSON #1: CONTROL YOUR CONTENT AND PRACTICE PRUDENT WEB SECURITY-- “Snowden” is meant to be part flashy cautionary tale trying to make everything from webcams to EULA agreements look scary.  Edward Snowden himself, in a post-screening Q&A at the film’s premiere streamed and simulcast by Fathom Events, recommended that people of the general public carefully curate and restrict what they post publicly.  The effort towards security starts there.  He also stressed considering stronger and more varied passwords, password manager services, encrypted email accounts like ProtonMail, private search engines like StartPage, and secured messaging apps like Signal.

LESSON #2: WHAT DIFFERENTIATES PATRIOTISM AND TREASON-- Public opinion shows that one majority calls Edward Snowden a “patriot” worthy of pardon while another one deems him a “traitor” deserving of hanging in the public square.  This film makes the automatic judgment (leaving virtually no room for your own interpretation) and takes the universal stance that Snowden was an isolated ethical saint in a sea of corruption, the lone voice of opposition, the single hero taking initiative, and the only courageous one willing to stop atrocities and make a difference for his country.  There is a line later in the film that waxes “you don’t have to agree with your politicians to be a patriot.”  Put that on a t-shirt and go find a high horse.

LESSON #3: THE STATEMENT “I HAVE NOTHING TO HIDE” IS A LIE-- The Snowden characterization in the film calls B.S. and insists that everyone has something to hide and everyone requires privacy, be it personal family details or simply a web password or two.  People can say they are transparent and an open book, but someday a hacker or widespread digital fallout can show you how false that sense of security and confidence really is.