In 2013, NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked a large number of classified documents to the media, exposing the U.S. government’s covert surveillance activities. Some call the whistleblower a hero, while others call him a traitor. Spanning his time in the Army, the CIA and the NSA, Snowden uncovers the extent of the government’s spying programs, coming to the realization that the public’s understanding of privacy is far from the truth. His acts have been classified as treason and have made him one of the most wanted men in the world.
The theatrical release of 'Snowden' came and went without much attention. I can find three reasons for that: first, it's theatrical release date was pushed back twice. Changes like that usually signal troubles with the final product, leaving moviegoers leery of the movie's overall quality; second, Oliver Stone hasn't put out a good film in over a decade. When filmmakers like Stone and Robert Zemeckis pump out bad movie after bad movie for such a long time, then it's difficult to believe that they've actually succeeded again. Although they may return to making great movies, because of lost faith, no one turns out to see them; and third, the story of Edward Snowden was already told in the Oscar-winning documentary 'Citizenfour,' so why watch a reinactment of it? Coincidentally, Zemeckis ran into this same problem in 2015 with his excellent film 'The Walk.' Based on the brilliant documentary 'Man on Wire,' it also just-so-happened to star Joseph Gordon-Levitt and couldn't find an audience. When you've seen a story unfold in a documentary, which is a true form of storytelling, then why would you need to see a dramatized and embellished version of it?
Expanding the narrative of 'Citizenfour,' Oliver Stone took his time in post-production to ensure that 'Snowden' was as strong, personal and intimate as possible. The final product is powerful and deserves a lot more attention that its theatrical release received.
Following the leak of several of the United States government's top secret illegal programs, Stone immediately recognized the potential of the story at hand. After some back-and-forth communication, he traveled to Russia to meet with the whistleblowing source of the leaks, Edward Snowden. Through several one-on-one meetings, Stone and Snowden conversed and batted around the idea of turning his story into a feature film. With Snowden's full participation and approval, Stone went ahead with making the film. He compiled an excellent cast and went to work. Originally slated with a release date that was just months after shooting completed, made with a modest budget, the CG effects weren't ready on-time - hence the first bump. As the adjusted release date neared, it's said that Stone felt that he and his editors, Alex Marquez and Lee Percy, simply hadn't found the best way to edit the non-linear story. After massaging the footage, they found the right combination and 'Snowden' finally made its way into theaters.
Filmed on-scene before, during and shortly after Snowden's leak, 'Citizenfour' did a perfect job of telling the story of the U.S. government's secretive privacy infractions. Now, through Stone's 'Snowden,' we catch a great glimpse at who Edward Snowden was prior to the leak and what made him decide to throw away his entire life just to blow the whistle. The narrative bounces back and forth between Snowden's pre-leak life and the 2013 leak. The farthest back that the film goes is 2004. We see Snowden's early days in the military and the medical condition that ultimately led to his honerable discharge. With his original plan of pursuing a career in military intelligence entirely dashed, we see him apply and interview for a top secret position within the CIA. After being hired, we watch him go through training, where he received his first exposure to the broken moral and ethical compass of the United States government. While taking his first assignment overseas, we see his integrity put to the test as he learned of the programs that he would ultimately leak. It's then that he quit the CIA, moved back to Japan and took a contractor job that would have him indirectly working with the government.
Snowden believed that his indirect work with the government would clear his conscience of the government's shady secrets, but he couldn't escape them. He was surrounded by programs like XKEYSCORE and Prism, both of which worked together to spy on individuals, including U.S. citizens, by using their most private technology – social media, emails, texts, cameras and microphones on computers and mobile devices … even when they're powered down. At a certain point, the stress of having this knowledge became too much – especially once he suffered a seizure and was diagnosed with epilepsy. When a program of his own creation (Epic Shelter) was misused, he started plotting the best way to blow the whistle. In the process of collecting the evidence, he left a trail of breadcrumbs that led back to him so none of his colleagues could become suspect for the leak.
Adding to the strength and intimacy of this main narrative, a secondary story unfolds. Making the Snowden character seem all the more human and relatable, we're walked through the intimate details of his relationship with long-time girlfriend Lindsay Mills. The openness and honesty between the two offers a beautiful contrasting parallel between their relationship and the relationship that the conniving U.S. government has with its citizens. The two stories function harmoniously and impact one another.
Oliver Stone's last few films have been a complete mess. Even I worried that 'Snowden' would follow suit. But 'Snowden' flows well. It's structure is solid and firm, breaking Stone's streak of incoherence.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his supporting ensemble cast carry the personal and tense tale. After seeing the trailers and hearing Gordon-Levitt do his best vocal impression of Edward Snowden, many complained about his voice. Being a fan of Gordon-Levitt, even I worried that the disuised voice would be offputting – but when you watch the film, after only a few minutes, you'll forget that he's speaking any differently than usual. Just minutes in, his voice sounds natural and normal.
Shailene Woodley can be hit or miss, but her performance in 'Snowden' is mostly solid. A few spikes don't feel entirely natural, but she's never bad. Playing the documentary filmmaker of 'Citizenfour,' Melissa Leo is as great as ever. Zachary Quinto is solid as the Guardian reporter who broke the story. Nicholas Cage appears in very small role and shines brightly nonetheless. But Rhys Ifans is the one who absolutely delivers. He plays Snowden's "work-father," the boss that ultimately crushes Snowden's opinion of the U.S. government. This betrayals plays a large role in Snowden's reason for the leak.
I agree that 'Citizenfour' is a perfect documentary, but I also believe that 'Snowden' is the perfect companion piece to it. They should be sold together. 'Citizenfour' offers insight to leak itself, the government's reaction to the leak, and how Snowden made it out Hong Kong. 'Snowden' offers insight to who Edward Snowden is, why he decided to blow the whistle and how he got the data out of a secure facility. (Snowden himself has said that the portrayal of "the heist" in the film is not accurate, but that he won't explain the true method because of security. He's also said that the film's telling of it isn't too far off from how it really went down.) Certain parts are obviously embellished for the sake of entertainment, but that doesn't stop 'Snowden' from being just as important as 'Citizenfour.' If you've ever doubted Snowden's motives, Oliver Stone's film and its accompanying special features will the clear the air.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal has placed Open Road's 'Snowden' on a BD-50, slapped it in a two-disc Elite keepcase with a DVD copy and a code for a digital copy, and place it in an embossed cardboard keepcase. The pre-menu "fresh" streaming trailers, which are preceeded with a forced Universal reel, can easily be skipped over.
'Snowden' arrives on Blu-ray with a stellar 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Shot mostly with Arri Alexa cameras, it certainly has the sheen of a digital shoot (but not in the painfully awkward style of Michael Mann's last few films). I prefer the traditional look of celluloid, but the digital appearance of the film is actually fitting for the digital warfare that 'Snowden' portrays. The only footage that appears with a different style and feel is that of a Codex Action Cam that was used for a few shots during the boot camp training sequence. The lesser quality of the GoPro-ish footage is like something you'd see from an Average Joe participating in a Spartan race, but it works to achieve the shots that they couldn't get from the Arris. They only last for a few seconds a time.
Aside from the action cam shots, 'Snowden' is very sharp and clear. The crystal imagery allows for details to sharply shine through. Minute details are consistently apparent. From clothing and fabric patterns to the grainy texture of solid wooden doors, fine details are abundant. Facial stubble, rogue hairs, under-eye wrinkles and porous imperfections will catch your attention. Certain tense scenes use long takes of extreme close-ups to add to the tension. One focuses solely on Joseph Gordon-Levitt's left eye. You'll see where each eyelash sprouts from the rim of the eyelid. You'll notice the slick seemingly oily surface of the eyelid. You'll even see the red capularies embedded in the whites of his eye. The amount of visible detail is impressive.
While the contrast and black levels are mostly solid, due to the digital shoot and some scenes with a lack in artificial lighting, their quality can waiver. A few dark hallways scenes feature contrast issues and gray black levels. Other dark settings may suffer crushing. Luckily, these issues are inconsistent. The only only flaw that I noticed is also inconsistent. On a few occasions, very mild noise can be seen. There are no bands, artifacts or instances of aliasing. One scene set in a flashy European strip club features some blown-out oversaturation, but I recall the same effect when I screened the film theatrically.
'Snowden' hits Blu-ray with a suitable, yet not overly impressive, solitary English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. It contains all of the necessary elements for greatness, just not in the abundance that we've become accustomed to.
There's a crispness and clarity to the vocal mixing. Dialog is always audible. Escalated speech isn't distorted in the slightest. Sporatically, a voice-over by Joseph Gordon-Levitt narrates transitional bridging sequences. Centrally located, it's just as strong as the rest of the dialog.
'Snowden' isn't the type of film to warrant loads of environmental effects, but if you listen closely, you'll hear plenty of effects that heighten the experience, as well as add to the tension. The resulting layers of unusual sounds adds to the feeling of paranoia within the film. No instances of imaging caught my attention.
The music mix is arguably the most impressive part of the audio. For the most part, the score is reminescent of that from a '90s political thriller. Think 'Clear and Present Danger' or 'The Pelican Brief.' At times it's heavy with winded instruments, at others its horn- or percussion-based. With any arrangement, it's full, dynamic and rich. As the story dives deeper into the cyber world, the main scoring evolves into a modern digital orchestration. The varying styles work very well with the on-screen content and mood.
'Citizenfour' may be the foremost and highest-respected film telling of Edward Snowden's true story, but Oliver Stone's dramatic feature 'Snowden' is just as important and impressive. The two function well together to tell the complete story of Snowden's top secret leaks. While 'Citizenfour' focuses on the leak itself, 'Snowden' offers the backstory and more insight to the significance of the leaks themselves. It's a warm return to fine cinema from its usually incoherent director. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his supporting cast deliver fantastic performances. As for the Blu-ray itself, the video quality is near-perfect. The audio mixing isn't bombastic, but it wil do. The disc is light on special features, but includes one especially strong 41-minute Q&A with the film's director, stars and Edward Snowden himself. This feature should be mandatory viewing for all who watch 'Snowden.' Although buried by Stone's reputation, its two-time delayed release and the success of 'Citizenfour,' 'Snowden' is an excellent and important film that I highly recommend.