I was never interested in seeing this film. This may seem surprising as I spend much of my time investigating cybersecurity. However, I had my reasons for this. First of all, I had already watched Citizenfour, the documentary on the Snowden incident. I found it mildly interesting but not compelling. Why would I want to watch a Hollywood production on the same topic? Secondly, I was suspicious about a film directed by Oliver Stone. Stone seems to have an agenda that is too visible in many of his films. He’s not as bad as the pseudo-documentarian, Michael Moore, but I was worried that I would get too much of Stone and too little of Snowden. Finally, why would I want to watch a movie for which I already knew the ending? I call this the ‘zen of movie watching”. This is a movie you watch to enjoy the process rather than the conclusion. It can usually only be pulled off by a well-constructed movie. Death of a Salesman, for example, tells you the ending in the title. The play (or movie) shows you what events led to that final moment. Would I really be interested in seeing how Snowden ended up in Moscow, especially since I already knew the story?
To get right to the point, my doubts were not justified. This was a good film. It is not simply the events shown in the documentary but more the story behind the story. The film’s success largely rests on the performance of the lead actor’s portrayal of Snowden. In this regard, the often under-rated, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, does a remarkable job. It has been reported that even Snowden’s family praised the similarities between Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal and Snowden, himself. Gordon-Levitt claimed that he repeatedly listened to Snowden’s speech patterns in Citizenfour so as to get them correct. Whatever; he managed to bring the Snowden character to life.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the acting of Shailene Woodley, who played Snowden’s romantic interest, Lindsay Mills. For the life of me, I could not fathom how Snowden could become so interested in such a two-dimensional woman. It was difficult to see any on-screen chemistry between the two and Woodley’s stilted, robotic performance didn’t help matters any. I kept hoping he would dump her and get on with his life, but, sadly, she kept interrupting the flow of the film. I can only assume that the real Lindsay Mills was much more charismatic.
In contrast, the relationships between Snowden and his superiors and colleagues are quite well done. This and Snowden’s battle with his own conscience make for the most compelling elements of the film. Stone may have an agenda, but he also shows both sides of the security vs. privacy debate. If he did not, we would never fully understand the dilemma that Snowden was cast into. It is this, and not the romantic relationship, that kept me interested throughout the film.
In the end, I concluded that this film should be required viewing for everyone in the business of cybersecurity, no matter which side of the privacy-security divide you may fall on. For the average cybersecurity-naive viewer, much of what you see will be eye-opening. I’m sure many will not believe that what they see is true, but be assured it is. Most of all, this was an unexpectedly entertaining movie which I think most people will enjoy. I especially liked the extra touch at the end, which I will not reveal in this review. Overall, I rate the movie as an 8 on the IMDB scale, which I consider to be quite high.
I wouldn’t really call it a family film because some of the content is a bit dense. Young kids would be bored and teenagers would complain about the lack of fight scenes, car races, and explosions. For the cybersecurity professionals, there may be a few scenes (like the file copying scene) which may not match with technical reality. So be it. This should not stop your enjoyment of the film. So if you find yourself with some free time over the holidays and you’re looking for something entertaining to watch, you could do far worse than choosing Snowden.
(You can see all of my IMDB reviews at http://imdb.com/user/ur25920573/comments)