Despite being a fixture of mainstream news since 2013, who is Edward Snowden? What did he actually do? It’s a question buried in computer jargon and keyboard clicking, detached and static actions that only serve to complicate the conundrum more. It’s one that isn’t solved by Snowden, a rote telling of the events of the ten years before Snowden (played here by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) leaked US government documents alleging extreme invasions of privacy. Laura Poitras offered the documentary version with her Oscar winning Citizenfour in 2014, a film that had all the rage-inducing immediacy that Oliver Stone attempts in Snowden, a call to arms on government surveillance that ultimately falls on uncaring ears.
The two-and-a-bit-hours traipses through Snowden’s Wikipedia page with little fanfare, starting with a physical injury that saw him be discharged from the army and then join the CIA to continue to, yes, serve his country as a good man born of the Star Spangled Banner does. Emotional ties are scraped together by depicting Snowden’s relationship with photographer Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), something that is increasingly shown to be at odds with his paranoia about the digital world. Their disconnection intensifies as his involvement increases, of course, Woodley relegated to being a rejected emotional crutch that again offers up little about the man behind the keyboard. It’s an odd film – half pro-military patriotism and half hardened cynicism about the United States touting itself as ‘the greatest country in the world’, as we are reminded with the continuous lie detector tests Snowden undergoes. But what is Snowden actually about, both in terms of the film and the man behind it? To answer that, go back to Citizenfour.