Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: Kieran Fitzgerald & Oliver Stone based on the book by Anatoly Kucherena and Luke Harding.
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Edward Snowden), Shailene Woodley (Lindsay Mills), Melissa Leo (Laura Poitras), Zachary Quinto (Glenn Greenwald), Nicolas Cage (Hank Forrester), Tom Wilkinson (Ewen MacAskill), Rhys Ifans (Corbin O'Brian), Joely Richardson (Janine Gibson), Ben Schnetzer (Gabiriel Sol), Scott Eastwood (Trevor James), Keith Stanfield (Patrick Haynes), Timothy Olyphant (Geneva CIA Agent), Logan Marshall-Green (Male Drone Pilot), Bhasker Patel (Marwan Al-Kirmani), Ben Chaplin (Robert Tibbo).
There is probably not a better director to dramatize Edward Snowden’s story that Oliver Stone – who in broad strokes, has made this movie several times before. In the film, Stone portrays Snowden as a young, idealistic, American patriot – a Republican who believes in his country – who slowly becomes disillusioned in it as he learns what it is up to. There is a similar arc in films like Platoon (1986), Wall Street (1987), Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and JFK (1991). Stone has also always done his best work when documenting the ills of America – the recent past that’s shapes America’s present. While there is now denying that Snowden doesn’t really come close to Stone’s best work – now 21 years in the past, as his last true masterpiece was Nixon (1995) – it’s one of Stone’s better late films, and though I would have preferred more of the daring Stone from his best years, and a little more complex portrait of Snowden (to be fair, much of the movie is fairly complex – its only in the last few scenes where he’s practically deified), Stone remains a fascinating movie – anchored by a great performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
The film flashes back and forth in time – starting during those few days made famous by Laura Poitras’ Oscar winning documentary Citizenfour, when Snowden met with Poitras and journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) in a luxury hotel in Hong Kong – revealing just how widespread government surveillance was, not just on foreign citizens, but on Americans as well. It then goes back to 2004 – when an injury forces Snowden out of the Marines, and into CIA training. Although he doesn’t have a college degree – he knows computers, and soon he is impressing his instructor, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) with his knowledge. During the next decade, he’ll be stationed in one place after another – Geneva, Japan, Maryland, Hawaii – and at each stop along the way, he becomes increasingly horrified by what the American government is doing. He sees his own systems – he thought he was creating for more benign purposes – be turned into advanced spy networks – used to basically spy on any computer or cell phone the NSA and CIA wants it to. They can even turn on your web camera and watch you live without you knowing. This mounting knowledge is intercut with scenes of Snowden and is girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) – a Liberal to his Conservative – and their relationship, which is sometimes a salve to Snowden, but whose job makes it more and more difficult to maintain.
The scenes of Snowden and Mills are easily the weakest part of the film. Stone has never been particularly good at these types of scenes – the relationship scenes have frequently been the weakest in his films, and have resulted in more than his share of one-dimensional female characters, even in his better films. Most of the time though, they are easily to ignore, because they don’t take up as much of the runtime as they do in Snowden – and that’s really what drags the film down at parts. There is only so many times when Woodley (a fine actress, stuck with an impossible role) can look at Snowden with love and concern and worry and ask him what’s wrong, before you long to simply move onto the next scene – we know he cannot and will not tell her, so what’s really the point?
Fortunately, the rest of the movies works well. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the perfect casting choice for Snowden – he does a fine impression of Snowden’s voice and mannerisms, and there are times when Stone is essentially recreating scenes from Citizenfour where the similarity in appearance is eerily accurate. If the performance were just impression though, it would be impressive, but not all that interesting. What Gordon-Levitt does though is show Snowden’s inner-workings – how he processes information, his gradual change from idealist to disillusioned. He manages the near impossible – and even delivers a great performance while doing nothing so much as looking at a computer screen – you can see him thinking, see him take in the information on that screen.
Because so much time is spent looking at those screens in Snowden, Stone’s style is a little more muted than normal here. One of the issues filmmakers have had in documenting our new, online world is like biopics about writers, there is nothing inherently cinematic about people sitting alone, doing quiet work, staring at something only they can see, lost in their own head. Even the best film made to date on the subject – David Fincher’s The Social Network, found most of its innovations while the characters were just coding. Stone, who is responsible from some of the most stylistically bold American films in history, plays it pretty straight here.
I enjoyed most of Snowden – it’s a pleasure to watch Gordon-Levitt work at this high a level – and it’s great to see a cast full of recognizable faces parade through the film – from Rhys Ifans to Nicolas Cage to Timothy Olyphant to Melissa Leo to Zachary Quinto to Tom Wilkinson to Joely Richardson to Ben Schnetzer to Keith Stanfield – the film is full of recognizable faces, many only appear for a scene or two. Yet, unlike many directors who have this all-star cast, Stone has always been able to integrate his larger casts into the narrative, so it becomes more than a game of spot the star. I do think that the scenes with Lindsay Mills hurt the flow of the movie – and pushes it above the two hour running time, that it didn’t need to be. I also think that the end of the film goes too far in terms of hero worship of Snowden – who appears as himself in the closing scenes. It’s no surprise that Stone views Snowden as a hero for his revelations, the reality (to me anyway) is more complicated than that, which I think Stone (and Snowden himself) show throughout the film before it gets to the end. Overall though, Snowden is a fine a film – not quite a return to form for Stone, but as close as we’re likely to get from him.