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Film review: Snowden – Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in thrilling biopic

Hongkongers may find little new in story of how Edward Snowden blew the whistle on Western security agencies spying on their own citizens, but Oliver Stone keeps to the facts and makes a riveting tale

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 October, 2016, 8:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 October, 2016, 10:20am

4/5 stars

Perhaps intended to reach as broad an audience as possible, Oliver Stone’s film about surveillance whistle-blower Edward Snowden unspools as a conventional biopic. Stone is viewed as a cinematic auteur because he is never afraid to give his idiosyncratic points of view full rein in his work, but here he’s done the opposite – and to good effect.

Snowden is a careful work, made with the cooperation of its subject, and it tries very hard to stick to the facts, or at least the facts as Snowden sees them, without being a plodding retelling of his story. Taking Michael Moore’s position that the public generally understands a lot less about politics than is healthy for them, Stone assumes his audience knows nothing of Snowden and his revelations.

The story is told mainly in flashback, using the framing device of Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) relating his life story to The Guardian journalist Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) while holed up in the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong. Stone runs through all the major events in Snowden’s life and shows how they changed him from patriotic conservative to whistle-blower.

Oliver Stone and Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the challenges of making Snowden

Stone also explains, without dumbing it down, the information that Snowden revealed to the press, generally focusing on the issue that the National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on more US citizens than foreigners. Stone visited Snowden around nine times in Moscow to check the accuracy of the script, which was based on two published accounts.

Snowden’s relationship with his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), is a third strand. Stone uses the romance to humanise him, but also keeps these scenes quiet, so they don’t detract from the main issue.

Film review: Citizenfour - Edward Snowden in Hong Kong

Viewers in Hong Kong, where Snowden tenured himself while making the spying information public, probably won’t find much in the film they don’t already know. Similarly, those who have seen Laura Poitras’ documentary Citizenfour will feel it revisits well-trodden ground. But Stone is a filmmaker first and a political analyst second, and he manages to make the story thrilling even if everyone knows the ending.

Snowden opens on October 6

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