“The Social Network’s Evil Twin” could be one way of describing Oliver Stone’s expertly made movie: a tense, taut drama with heart-stopping moments – Stone’s best since his 90s paranoia thrillers Nixon and JFK. It’s based on the story of Edward Snowden, the US intelligence analyst who in 2013 went public about America’s spying and data mining: the global abolition of privacy. In some ways, the stories of Mark Zuckerberg and Snowden bookend this whole debate. The web put us in touch with each other and then put state snoopers in touch with us.
Full disclosure: this was a Guardian story; the movie is based on a book by a Guardian journalist, and features a cameo from former editor Alan Rusbridger. But I hope it’s with no less objectivity than usual that I say that it is really absorbing, with a great lead performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who brings an intelligent, observant alertness to his portrayal of Snowden. Stone’s movie can’t hope to match the palm-sweating tension of Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s original documentary interview with Snowden – Poitras is played by Melissa Leo here – but it’s a forthright attempt to engage with this fascinating, opaque figure and show what it cost him personally.
The story is told through flashbacks rooted in Snowden’s hair-raisingly fraught Hong Kong hotel-room interview with the Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Poitras (Leo). Invalided out of the army with fragile bones – a misleading metaphor – Snowden had gone into the business of intelligence empire building, playing the great game of counter-cyberwarfare with foreign powers and spying on everyone at home. He falls in love with liberal photographer Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) but comes into conflict with ultra-hawkish spy chief Corbin O’Brian (a nice, cadaverous performance from Rhys Ifans).
Some of the film’s most straightforwardly enjoyable moments come when Snowden is still with the programme, using the traditional dark arts of spycraft, cosying up to a banker and blackmailing him to help trace Saudi cash. “Secrecy is security and security is victory!” says O’Brian. Snowden mentally replaces “secrecy” with “privacy” – everything follows from there.