It was obviously only a matter of time before someone made a movie about perhaps the most polarizing figure in recent American history (not named Donald Trump). And if anyone would step up to tackle the story of Edward Snowden, Oliver Stone would certainly be the logical choice. So it’s not surprising to learn that the director (who never met a conspiracy theory or thorny issue he didn’t like) first met with the infamous former NSA contractor about the possibility of filming his story just six months after Snowden became a household name.
But Snowden isn’t nearly the daring type of film we’re used to from the man who gave us JFK, Platoon, and Wall Street. There’s a surprisingly scant level of edginess and no real sense of urgency. Instead we’re left with what amounts to little more than a standard bio-pic. Stone, who also co-wrote the screenplay, actually seems more invested in his pre-show “turn your phone off” PSA than what he gives us during the entire film’s 145-minute run time.
Using Snowden’s whistleblowing 2013 Hong Kong meeting with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) as the backdrop, the film traces Snowden’s adult life, from basic training at Fort Benning in 2004 through to his current life as a dissident in Moscow. Along the way, of course, we watch as Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) hops from the CIA to the NSA, and we see how and when he started forming the mindset that would eventually lead him to leak hundreds of classified documents detailing domestic surveillance programs.
Recent polls have made it clear that Snowden has just as many supporters as detractors, and through it’s obvious that Stone is planted firmly in the “Snowden is a patriot/hero” camp, there’s no getting around the fact that the film is more preachy that substantive. There’s precious little that doesn’t seem like Stone just wrote the words that he himself wanted to say, and then he handed the script to Gordon-Levitt to read out loud. And though moviegoers are well aware of Stone’s lack of nuance, there are points in Snowden where it’s off the charts.
During one almost comically ridiculous scene, Snowden takes a conference call with his fictionalized CIA boss Corbin O’Brian (whom Stone none-too-subtlely named after the bad guy in George Orwell’s 1984). Instead of just having O’Brian appear on a computer monitor, though, Stone made the decision to project O’Brian’s head as a giant, close-up noggin on a floor-to-ceiling video wall. Yes, snickers flittered through the audience.
For his part, Gordon-Levitt turns in a middle-of-the-road performance. It’s far from the actor’s best work, at times feeling as though he’s concentrating so hard on getting Snowden’s vocal inflection down that the emotions and conviction are left behind. Shailene Woodley does admirable work, though, as Lindsay Mills, Snowden’s girlfriend and the film’s de facto moral compass.
Love him or hate him, Edward Snowden is certainly an interesting and thought-provoking character, but the film doesn’t really do him any justice (in the non-legal sense). And love him or hate him, Oliver Stone generally makes interesting, thought-provoking movies, but unfortunately Snowden isn’t one of them.