Snowden is not a great film.
An important and controversial story? For sure. But it’s just not a great movie. Director Oliver Stone (Scarface, Platoon, Wall Street) was once a cinematic powerhouse, but it’s been 20 years since he’s produced an undisputedly great piece of work.
At this point, seeing one of his films is a bit like a ’90s Chicago Bulls fan watching a 43-year-old Michael Jordan’s final season with the Washington Wizards. It’s tough to witness a legend embarrassing himself.
It’s an unfortunate fate for a critical story coming to the big screen. Snowden tells the true tale of Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency employee who leaked government documents exposing the massive, illegal government surveillance of American citizens in 2013.
The whole thing plays out like a Lifetime movie with a large budget, despite great performances from Joseph Gordon Levitt (500 Days of Summer, The Dark Knight Rises), Shailene Woodley (Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars) and Zachary Quinto (Star Trek). It’s about 20 minutes too long, stuffed with side stories that don’t move the plot and a double espresso shot of unnecessary melodrama.
But, that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Here’s why this very average movie—and others like it—are still worth a trip to the theater.
Movie Releases Create Major Cultural Movements
When the Leonardo DiCaprio thriller Blood Diamond hit theaters just before Christmas in 2006, the gem industry had already spent months moving towards a more transparent selling process. The issue of conflict diamonds had been making the news cycle for years, complete with newspaper and magazine leads showing child slave labor mining the precious rocks in war torn Sierra Leone.
Human rights activists had been calling attention to the issue since 1998. And for years the public had been, more or less, unmoved. But all it took was one Hollywood start and hit weekend at the box office to cause the jewelry industry to feel enough societal pressure to clean up its collective act.
Similarly, Taken starring Liam Neeson, pushed the public conversation in 2008 toward modern day sex slavery, in a way that no book release or news coverage could have. And yet, Christians can often bristle against these cultural releases, rather than engage with them. Taken may have a commercial blockbuster, earning more than $145 million, but it was hardly a darling with critics, averaging mixed reviews at best.
But, where mainstream critics took issue with an uneven script, Focus on the Family’s “Plugged In Online” took issue with the main character’s actions not being up the Boy Scout code of conduct. “Bryan flouts both laws and ethics in his efforts to save Kim. He repeatedly steals cars, breaks into houses and endangers innocent civilians in car chases. The film implies that these choices are all acceptable given the gravity of his mission.”
Just to recap, a movie brings attention to one the most horrific and and widespread crimes which affects millions of minors worldwide, and a major faith-based outlet criticized the movie due to … justifying driving over the speed limit?
No wonder Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman found that younger generations see American Christians as “sheltered” and out of out touch in their 2007 study UnChristian. Of course, this isn’t totally true. Or, at least, it doesn’t have to be.
But we will never reverse that stereotype by only buying tickets to the dozens of films made specifically for a Christian audience every year. Back in 2006, more than 50 movies aimed at Evangelicals were released, grossing an average of $39 million. To put that into perspective, the average movie for Evangelicals made more than the combined earnings of the top three movies this weekend (Sully, Blair Witch, Bridget Jones’s Baby).
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with seeing these movies. But if Christians want to be taken seriously and not be seen as a faith system defined by hiding from ideas, we need to be able to discuss the issues of the day with non-Christians. And your co-workers probably aren’t interested in breaking down the plot points of God’s Not Dead 2 during the lunch hour.
To cite a greatly overused sermon example, the Apostle Paul quotes Roman poetry in the Sermon at Mars Hill, rather than a Jewish source, because he knows the audience are Roman non-believers.
We can only articulate our faith well when we understand the context of someone who believes differently. And it’s difficult to fully gain that context if we stay home from the theater, lest we support the sin of on-screen speeding by association.
Hero, Villain … or a Combination of Both
The narrative of Edward Snowden may not be new, but it is complex. My wife put it this way on the car ride home: “That’s an important story. I didn’t follow it when it happened, and I never saw the documentary on it. But if you put Joseph Gordon Levitt and Shailene Woodley on the big screen, a lot of people are going to pay attention.”
And this deserves attention. Snowden is a spiderweb of political questions that demand answers. But, oddly enough, it’s not a partisan issue. Donald Trump has declared we should “kill the traitor.” Hillary Clinton thinks Snowden should return from exile in Moscow and “face the music.” Even outlier Bernie Sanders commented during his campaign that Snowden “played an important role in educating the public” but stopped short of calling for a pardon.
Edward Snowden is one of the very few people alive who can stand on the claim that he changed the world. History may be much more kind to him than our current crop of politicians. Or maybe not.
Whether you personally see Mr. Snowden as a hero or a villain will likely line up on how you see the privacy vs. security debate. The movie does a good job of pointing out the fact that many Americans just don’t care if they’re being spied on if the end result is preventing terrorism. Even if it means government agents can look and listen directly into our homes, vehicles and places of work by turning the webcams present on nearly every phone, tablet, computer and gaming system against us.
Snowden may be an average movie, but it’s an average movie that forces the audience to wrestle with difficult questions. Which, sometimes, is what makes it well worth your $10 and two-hour investment.
Snowden is rated R for language, sexuality and a brief flash of nudity.