Edward Snowden’s leak of classified NSA information is the kind of story that mercurial filmmaker Oliver Stone should be able to sink his teeth into – a young idealist goes up against a monolothic opponent in a story rife with political intrigue and moral ambiguity. And for the superior first half of the movie it feels like Stone’s dramatic retelling of Edward Snowden’s government career and subsequent intelligence leak could fulfill that promise and provide a cracking thriller full of paranoia. Shame then that it oversimplifies compellingly complex issues in the end, deflating limply just as it should be raising its voice.
Making use of a heavy flashback structure, the movie begins with Snowden’s fateful 2013 Hong Kong meeting with journalists before circling back to the beginning of his career in the U.S. army. We’re treated to many versions of Edward Snowden: a green army recruit whose career-ending injury sidelines him, a wunderkind intelligence agent whose instructors take a special interest in him, and eventually a jaded man whose glimpse behind the curtain inspires him to turn traitor against his government in pursuit of a greater truth.
Stone populates his movie, as ever, with a bunch of familiar faces who he uses to varying degrees. A somber Nic Cage (the most boring kind) plays a disgraced professor whose anti-authoritarian streak sparks something in Snowden, though Cage is in so few scenes as to barely register. More effective is Rhys Ifans as CIA Director Corbin O’Brien. Ifans’ natural affability is subverted here as he plays against type as the quietly menacing O’Brien. A one-time mentor to Snowden whose all-seeing eye acts as a stand-in for the overreaching U.S. surveillance complex, O’Brien becomes the closest thing the movie has to an enemy beyond general ideologies.
On Snowden’s side are the trio of crusading colleagues who meet him in Hong Kong and help disseminate Snowden’s purloined data. Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson are fine as journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan Makaskill (of The Guardian), while Melissa Leo plays documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. These cramped hotel scenes are soaked in anxiety and are mostly urgent and effective, provided they aren’t directly compared to the masterful documentary that Poitras released two years ago about the exact same thing.
The one element that hasn’t changed much between the doc Citizenfour and Stone’s Snowden is the nebbish analyst at the centre of the storm. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as the title character and his portrayal is uncanny. It’d seem like mere imitation but Gordon-Levitt makes it well-rounded, lending nuance to this conservative’s journey towards full-on whistleblower. Whether it’s fact or fiction, at least the mannerisms are there and his performance is the best thing about the movie. Not far behind is Shailene Woodley as Snowden’s free-spirited girlfriend Lindsay Mills. If anything, the movie proves that despite their past successes, Gordon-Levitt and Woodley remain underrated.
Stone’s stylistic flourishes remain intact throughout, as he uses frantic editing and different film stocks to disorient viewers. It works during Snowden’s epileptic episodes and manages to crank up the tension during revelatory scenes that expose the depth and breadth of the NSA’s surveillance techniques. Snowden, after learning that the NSA can spy on people through their webcam, puts a bandaid over his laptop camera. You may too after seeing this. If anything though, Stone could’ve gone all in as he sometimes tiptoes around his delicate subject matter whereas the Stone of years past would’ve been ranting towards the heavens.
Ultimately it’s a Faustian bargain that the American public unwittingly struck with their government – sacrificing their privacy for safety, with their tendency to live their lives online all the tacit approval that the government needed. Snowden’s leak, whatever the legality or repercussions, was and is Earth-shaking stuff. The movie treats it almost off-handedly, a mere copying of files to a flash drive followed by tricking a security guard. Perhaps it’s more scary that not only are we as citizens vulnerable, but the intelligence complex is as well. Regardless, it’s not overly cinematic expecially coming from such an outspoken and irrepressable rogue like Stone.
That lack of bite makes Snowden difficult to compete with Laura Poitra’s gripping Citizenfour, though Stone’s version still retains snappy editing that makes its 2+ hours feel like far less. Maybe this is the Oliver Stone we get now: older, wiser, a little more tame. But for a man who made a career of rattling the bars of deeply held American institutions, that touch of madness evident in his best work is sorely missed here.
Directed by Oliver Stone
Runtime: 134 minutes