If you were a child of the Eighties, you probably know that there are two ways to solve a Rubik’s Cube: the first is to apply your brainpower, and the second is to remove all those little colored stickers and put them back together in the right order when no one is looking. Oliver Stone’s “Snowden,” explains the trick further when its titular protagonist (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) advises someone to start by lining up the white cross (Is that it?). Of course, Joseph doesn’t have to rely on either option; he’s smart enough to put the thing together blindfolded if need be. Rubik’s Cubes have starred in earlier movies than “Snowden;” in “The Pursuit of Happyness (sic),” one helped Will Smith’s unemployed newly single father land a plum, if unpaid, internship and develop humility. Here, the Cube has a more noble purpose – or perhaps, depending on your viewpoint, a more sinister one – helping to smuggle computer data from the NSA out of the highly monitored center so as to give to Guardian journalists (Tom Wilkinson and Zachary Quinto) plus a sympathetic documentary maker (Melissa Leo). No one wonders why a grown man would be playing with such a toy in the late 2000’s, but apparently this part of the story really happened.
Once Joseph meets the group, they go back to a hotel, and after confiscating everyone’s cell phones and sticking them in the microwave, sits down to tell his tale. He starts when he’s undergoing basic military training – but after managing to ignore for some time the fact that both his legs are broken, really messes up his lower limbs, and is informed soberly that there are other ways he can serve his country. Indeed there are, and he decides to apply to the CIA. Soon, like Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley in “The Imitation Game,” he’s stunning his superiors with his lighting fast programming skills. Soon, too, Joseph begins to learn just how invasive the government is when it wants to put someone under surveillance. The explanation he’s given will probably stun you (unless you work for the CIA, too); it’s basically that six degrees from any individual, there’s quite a few people who get swept up in the surveillance net, and guess what, thanks to web cams and cell phones and such, your private data becomes very public. If you are thinking, like Shailene Woodley, who plays Joseph’s photographer girlfriend, it’s not a big deal because you have “nothing to hide,” “Snowden,” will make you think again.
Eventually, Joseph lands a job doing contract work in Hawaii, where both he and Shailene are happy, but then his conscience begins to bother him, and he decides to leak the information about illegal NSA surveillance (it’s around 2013) in hopes of informing the American people. This is, of course, not exactly welcome – which he anticipates and winds up fleeing to Russia (where he still lives with his girlfriend). Fittingly for a movie about how personal data gets shaped, there are lots of shots of the characters from different angles; at one point, we see Joseph and Melissa walking from behind, but only Joseph’s reflection blurs. However, Joseph does a great job fleshing out his character. Oliver Stone also directed “JFK,” which I remember one critic said made her so paranoid, she began to wonder if she was involved in the Kennedy assassination herself. “Snowden,” might not go that far, but you might look at your web cam differently after seeing this. And maybe cover it up, when it’s not in use.