Oliver Stone's cautionary 'Snowden' will leave you paranoid

A restrained Joseph Gordon-Levitt anchors Stone's bold biopic, which sometimes seems like a long public service announcement about privacy.

Connie Guglielmo SVP, AI Edit Strategy
Connie Guglielmo is a senior vice president focused on AI edit strategy for CNET, a Red Ventures company. Previously, she was editor in chief of CNET, overseeing an award-winning team of reporters, editors and photojournalists producing original content about what's new, different and worth your attention. A veteran business-tech journalist, she's worked at MacWeek, Wired, Upside, Interactive Week, Bloomberg News and Forbes covering Apple and the big tech companies. She covets her original nail from the HP garage, a Mac the Knife mug from MacWEEK, her pre-Version 1.0 iPod, a desk chair from Next Computer and a tie-dyed BMUG T-shirt. She believes facts matter.
Expertise I've been fortunate to work my entire career in Silicon Valley, from the early days of the Mac to the boom/bust dot-com era to the current age of the internet, and interviewed notable executives including Steve Jobs. Credentials
  • Member of the board, UCLA Daily Bruin Alumni Network; advisory board, Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media
Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
Expertise E-commerce | Amazon | Earned wage access | Online marketplaces | Direct to consumer | Unions | Labor and employment | Supply chain | Cybersecurity | Privacy | Stalkerware | Hacking Credentials
  • 2022 Eddie Award for a single article in consumer technology
Connie Guglielmo
Laura Hautala
3 min read
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Video screenshot by Gael Fashingbauer/CNET

If you haven't already covered your computer's camera with a Band-Aid, that's probably the first thing you'll do after watching Oliver Stone's new biopic of Edward Snowden.

And that's notable given that "Snowden," starring a reserved yet simmering Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the ex-government contractor who exposed US secret surveillance programs, isn't really a story about paranoia in the digital age. Though it easily could have been.

Instead, the movie, which opens in the US Friday and hits UK theaters October 15, is a tale of personal transformation. We meet a young, earnest and patriotic Snowden who believes in his government and is eager to serve in the Army special forces before starting a promising career in the CIA.

As he slowly learns how the government collects data on its friends, foes and citizens in the name of national security, however, he grows ever more wary. Ultimately, he's so repulsed by what he sees as the government's remorseless abuse of power that he risks it all to tell the world what's really going on. That act has branded him a whistleblower or traitor, depending on your point of view.

To anyone who's heard the real Snowden talk about why he made his disclosures, the transformation won't come as a surprise.

But for people new to the issues, or only vaguely familiar with the real Snowden, the film could add a human -- if highly dramatized -- dimension to his actions. This is, after all, transformation as relayed by Stone, who also delivered such sweeping big-message explorations as "Born on the Fourth of July," "JFK," "Nixon" and "Wall Street."

The movie sometimes seems like a long public service announcement about privacy versus national security. Stone's Snowden gets caught up in a morally fraught CIA operation, in which he learns how to use the very government surveillance tools he'll later reveal to the public. He stands face to face with his longtime mentor Corbin O'Brien -- a fictional character, Stone told CNET -- and learns the government has hacked his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley.

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Open Road Studios

Finally, there's some formulaic tension as Snowden downloads the fateful computer files onto a small disk as his supervisor hovers nearby, distracted by a workplace crisis.

By the end, Snowden, then 29, sees dissent as an act of patriotism. The story starts and ends with his meet-up in Hong Kong with the journalists and videographers who would take his story to the world. Those emerge as the most compelling scenes of the film. The movie starts to feel bloated when it veers from the main storyline into argument scenes with Mills over who can access the nude pictures on her computer.

Gordon-Levitt, who convincingly plays a computer geek and intellectual with a human side, is known for star turns in "Looper," "Inception" and "500 Days of Summer." The actor met with the real Snowden at his home in exile in Moscow before filming and did his own research into the NSA leaks.

In a Reddit AMA on Thursday, Gordon-Levitt said he believes "Ed" opened up the conversation about privacy in the US and around the world. He also believes Snowden should get the pardon he requested earlier this week.

"Personally, I believe what he did was really beneficial for the country," Gordon-Levitt also said in an interview with CNET Magazine in August. "He was speaking optimistically about how technology impacts democracy and how technology could make the future a better place. I feel like you don't always hear that. He has become a symbol of the downsides of what technology could be, and he often speaks about how technology is misused. It was cool to hear him speak more optimistically."

You might feel carried along by the drama of "Snowden." You might also get distracted wondering whether events unfolded quite as dramatically as portrayed. Did Snowden really smuggle files out of the NSA compound where he worked in Hawaii in a Rubik's Cube? The real Snowden isn't giving specifics.

Watch this: Joseph Gordon-Levitt says he wants Snowden pardoned