From left, Melissa Leo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Wilkinson and Zachary Quinto appear in Oliver Stone’s “Snowden.” (Courtesy Open Road Films)

From left, Melissa Leo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Wilkinson and Zachary Quinto appear in Oliver Stone’s “Snowden.” (Courtesy Open Road Films)

‘Snowden’ a soft companion piece to ‘Citizenfour’

The main question regarding Oliver Stone’s new biopic “Snowden” — in addition to whether it’s worth seeing — is whether, compared to the 2014 documentary “Citizenfour,” it’s even relevant.

“Snowden” even begins with a scene of filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) meeting with Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in a Hong Kong hotel room, and starting to film what would become the powerful, Oscar-winning work.

The jaw-dropping “Citizenfour,” now streaming free on, contains, as much as any documentary can, the facts of the case.

On the other hand, there is director Stone, who is famous for conspiracy-laden political fictions.

Stone’s great reign ran roughly from 1986 (“Salvador” and “Platoon”) to 1995 (“Nixon”), during which time he attacked the Vietnam War three times and took on the JFK assassination, Wall Street greed, the media’s obsession with killers, and even Jim Morrison.

As he explored corrupt governments or questionable movements, he was like a hunter or an assassin pursuing an already-perceived target.

But after the 1990s, he’s made a few tepid thrillers and a rather benign biopic of George W. Bush. His righteous anger and crackpot appeal seem to have dried up.

His Snowden is more like a lamb, inadvertently stumbling upon the evil that men do.

Despite fine filmmaking and performances, “Snowden” (which Stone cowrote, based on books by Anatoly Kucherena and Luke Harding) is soft. It shows the character through a filtered movie light, as a hero, while briefly acknowledging that a few cranky folks elsewhere think he’s a pest, or a criminal.

The new movie charts Snowden’s career, from his early conservative days hoping to serve his country, to his brief military career, to his idealistic joining of the CIA, to meeting his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).

He’s shocked as he discovers the level at which the U.S. government uses technology to spy on all citizens, not just suspected terrorists.

As he walks out of the government building for the final time with his infamous hidden data, Snowden can’t suppress a big, warm, fuzzy smile.

Yet despite its light touch, “Snowden” is still an interesting, emotional companion piece to “Citizenfour,” in which the real Snowden, in interviews, already had made his decision, and is merely recounting facts.

In Stone’s “Snowden,” we witness his rising, harrowing guilt, and his breaking point. We see how he decides he can no longer work in the system and how he must do something about what he knows.

Still, “Snowden” lacks the sense of danger of the real story. It inspires hope that things can change, but not necessarily the courage to change them.

Two and a half stars
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto
Written by Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone
Directed by Oliver Stone
Rated R
Running time 2 hours, 18 minutes

CitizenfourEdward SnowdenJoseph Gordon-LevittLaura PoitrasMelissa LeoMovies and TVOliver StoneShailene WoodleySnowdenzachary quinto

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at

Just Posted

Quarterback Nick Mullens is expected to get his third straight start Sunday. Mullens is 46 of 73 for 538 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions in his other two starts this season. <ins>(Chris Victorio / Special to S.F. Examiner).</ins>
49ers trying to turn season around in Sunday’s prime-time faceoff with the Rams

49ers at Rams When: Sunday, 1:05 p.m. Where: SoFi Stadium, Inglewood TV:… Continue reading

Psilocybin magic mushrooms (Shutterstock)
‘Magic mushrooms’ moving into the mainstream

Efforts to decriminalize psychedelics could follow several different paths

Those who stick around San Francisco on long holiday weekends can enjoy a slower pace, uncrowded streets and beloved institutions like cable cars. <ins>(Kevin Hume/S.F. Examiner)</ins>
These empty San Francisco streets: A holiday dream

We’re here because we can be, and because we have nowhere else to be

The 2020 Census has concluded taking responses sooner than expected. (Courtesy photo)
What does California have to lose if undocumented immigrants are excluded from the census?

By Kim Bojórquez The Sacramento Bee If The U.S. Supreme Court rules… Continue reading

It’s disheartening to see that Bill Graham Civic’s marquee isn’t announcing upcoming concerts. (Screenshot/Bill Graham Civic Twitter)
A cruise through The City with the ghosts of rides past

I take my time and don’t even mind the occasional traffic jams

Most Read