The conundrum at the heart of Oliver Stone’s Snowden is that it’s a spy movie in which the big revelation, the secret that is the source of all the action, conspiracy, and necessary heist sequences, is that the government is spying on people. In the real world, this is a fairly big deal to most people. In the world of a movie, it doesn’t evoke quite the same level of urgency. It’s hard to imagine a Jason Bourne film in which the climactic revelation is that they’ve got eyes on him. That’s kind of taken as a given in this genre, and this is a genre from which this film is clearly drawing.
Nevertheless, Snowden is a worthwhile, entertaining companion narrative to Laura Poitras’ Academy Award-winning documentary, Citizenfour (Melissa Leo appears here as Poitras, re-enacting scenes from the doc in the Hong Kong hotel room with Zachary Quinto as Glenn Greenwald). It offers up a compelling and at times riveting backstory for Mr. Snowden, who became famous for his exposure of the NSA’s surveillance practices. It may border on hagiography, but the context of Snowden’s actions, his level of accomplishment within the government organizations in which he served, makes his decision to reveal the secret extent of the agencies’ wiretapping more interesting.
The movie is framed nicely by the hotel room scenes straight out of the documentary, and filled in by flashbacks chronicling Snowden’s life to this point: his military enlistment, his work in special forces, to the CIA and NSA, and his eventual disillusionment with the system of spying that he and his colleagues were engaging in. His potential for greatness is clear every step of the way. His personal life gets attention so far as it is applicable to his career in intelligence, which is, frankly, a little old fashioned.
Early footage of the movie produced plenty of skeptics regarding Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s ability in depicting the protagonist, specifically his choice in changing his voice for the role. The skepticism would be warranted if he made the character into a caricature, but he commits so fully to the physicality and manner of the part that the voice seems like more of a logical effect of characterization than a shallow gimmick. Suffice to say, he does very good work.
Where the film suffers, unfortunately, is in the personal drama side. The interactions between characters doesn’t quite feel human, and the drama between Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley, who plays girlfriend Lindsay Mills, rings a bit hollow. By the end of Snowden, you get the sense that Stone was less interested in the personal, human effects of the story than he was with presenting the man as a macho patriot who did something important for his country.
The real Edward Snowden’s involvement in the development of the movie has now been publicly reported, and this aspect, the desired impact of the movie on real life, seems like Stone’s primary goal. Fair enough. The idea that people should know what their government is doing is the driving principle behind Snowden’s work, and so making a movie that’s designed to be broad and play on lots of screens is in service of spreading this knowledge. It would have been nice, though, to have that along with more inspired sequences like the ones involving the animated reconstructions of the surveillance network providing a little treat to keep our eyes and brains engaged. That and maybe a little more for Nicolas Cage to do, and for that matter, Melissa Leo.
When things are moving, especially when they’re moving along to Anthony Dod Mantle’s snappy camera work, Snowden makes learning about illegal government wiretapping exciting and interesting. The biographical points give Snowden’s story some context, but the character himself remains elusive – the film provides the story with some color but not a lot of depth. Still, if it keeps the energy of the conversation around national surveillance alive for longer, or even educates people who would not otherwise have known the details of what happened here, that’s a purpose that would make any amount of trite character scenes worthwhile.
Snowden makes the story of Edward Snowden entertaining and accessible for a wide audience, but offers little beyond that.