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Snowden review: Joseph Gordon-Levitt shapeshifts into everybody's favourite whistleblower

Steve Hogarty
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Snowden
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There’s much to enjoy about Snowden. Chief among them is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s transformative turn as the NSA contractor turned superstar whistleblower, in which he valiantly – and at first distractingly – drops his voice a full octave and assumes the unique pout of man who’s been exiled to Moscow forever. The performance elevates an otherwise unfocused account of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the US’s domestic spying operations.

In scenes that would be far-fetched in a work of fiction, we’re shown how anyone with a modicum of security clearance can peer through the webcam of a powered-off laptop and warrantlessly snoop around in private Facebook photos, contributing to the encroaching sense of paranoia and injustice that ultimately drives Snowden to go to the press.

But Snowden suffers insofar as it can’t decide which part of the story to tell. We veer from Snowden’s love life, his personal and medical problems, to his dealings with Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian, to the subterfuge he employs to safely extract the data he needs to blow the lid on the surveillance state, never stopping too long on any one topic to properly digest and dissect.

The result is a bloated biography that tries to whittle the enormity of a complex constitutional crisis into a starry Hollywood popcorn-muncher. Eventually, there’s too much reliance on spooky factoids – did you know that the CIA built a digital off-switch into Japan’s power-grid in case they ever went to war? – and lazy progress-bar tension. Nicolas Cage – yes Nicolas Cage – plays a bizarre, washed-up intelligence official turned kooky coding expert. Rhys Ifans plays Snowden’s CIA mentor, whose main job is strolling about in the countryside, hands clasped behind his back, babbling sagely about the modern battlefield and the ethics of the whole thing.

The importance and implications of Edward Snowden and his controversial japes have been better explored in documentary Citizenfour, but despite its wandering lens this film is a relatively entertaining retelling that broadly paints the protagonist as the hero he clearly is. You’ll come away with a renewed sense of horror at the ghastly conglomerate of international bastards running the show (if you’re not already reeling from our own government having just passed a law allowing them to check out every website you’ve visited); you’ll almost certainly delete your nudes and tape up your webcam.

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