When the drama around NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was unfolding, it felt like watching an incredible spy movie. So it’s no surprise that Oliver Stone, a master of political thrillers, is turning the real-life version of Snowden’s experiences into a movie that feels—at least in the trailer—as tense and exciting as the latest Mission Impossible installment. Which is good but also means that you’ll need to forgive this movie for its unrealistic tech tropes.Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception, Looper) does a pitch-perfect impression of Snowden as a patriotic geek with smartass tendencies. Injured during military training, he sets his sights on intelligence work, where he scores off the charts on every task the government throws at him. And then one night, one of his fellow intelligence geeks shows him a tool that they can use to spy on everyone in the country. As Snowden has a crisis of conscience, we’re treated to one of those classic “hacking scene” moments where a nonexistent piece of software behaves in ways that make no sense, swirling around and showing us random pieces of private data from all the social networks ever. I know, I know. This is not how it happened. Just go with it.
Probably the best part of the trailer, which captures both the serious and mischievous sides of Snowden, is when we see him sneaking data out of the NSA contractor where he works by hiding it on an SD card inside a Rubik’s Cube. Then we see a rapid-fire series of scenes where the stakes get higher, Snowen meets with Glenn Greenwald (played by Zachary Quinto, AKA Spock), and the tension mounts as blinky lights illuminate everybody’s faces. It’s satisfying to see events that aroused so much passion around the world translated into an emotionally gripping story. But “story” is the operative term here. Stone, who co-wrote the film, has taken a lot of liberties to turn this tale of people typing and talking into a suspenseful drama.
This isn’t a big surprise when you consider that the two main pieces of source material for the movie are Luke Harding’s book The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted, based on his reporting for the Guardian, and a novel called Time of the Octopus written by Snowden’s lawyer Anatoly Kucherena. Time of the Octopus, which Stone optioned for $1 million, has not yet been translated from Russian into English—but Kucherena says it’s the first novel in a trilogy inspired by what he called “tuning into the wavelength” of Snowden’s perceptions. Though the book is being marketed in Russia with Snowden’s face on the cover, it’s about an American operative named Joshua Cold who goes through adventures that are not quite the same as Snowden’s. I think it’s safe to say that Stone leaned more heavily on Kucherena’s work than Harding’s journalism, simply because he was more interested in the emotional impact of what Snowden did than the technical details.
Snowden himself seemed pretty excited about the trailer, tweeting it with the words, “For two minutes and thirty nine seconds, everybody at NSA just stopped working.”
Though you’ll want to read Harding’s book about Snowden to get all the facts, I think it’s fair to say that this movie will help humanize Snowden for people who don’t understand why he leaked the NSA documents. In Stone’s retelling, Snowden is a patriotic American who took his job seriously. And when Snowden thought the American people were being ill-served by their government, he put his life on the line to change that. Regardless of whether you think he’s a hero or a traitor, the movie Snowden aims to convince you that he did what he thought was right, based on a code of ethics he learned while serving his country.