Outside the realm of politicians, there are few people who provoke a stronger and more opinionated reaction than Edward Snowden, a name that has come to embody a debate that extends far beyond issues of national security, and the subject of Oliver Stone’s a new film Snowden. It’s a film that seeks to shine a light on the human element of a story that is often swallowed by esoteric technology and complex political and social ideologies. At a glance, Stone seems an obvious choice – a divisive filmmaker for a divisive man. But Snowden is remarkably lacking in the edge that we’ve come to expect group from Stone’s films, leaving this film about top secret intelligence feeling a little pedestrian.
If people have seen Edward Snowden anywhere outside a news headline, it’s likely from Laura Poitras’s Oscar winning documentary Citizenfour, an account of the days following Snowden’s leak of classified information, which is where Stone’s film begins before hopping back in time to track Snowden’s journey from training in the U.S. Special Forces, and through his career in the intelligence community. It’s a story that seems ripe for Stone, who has a reputation for left-leaning political dramas, but he plays things pretty straight here. Snowden is less a liberal slugging of the military industrial complex than it is a global horror show of intelligence overreach, and even that might be a touch dramatic for this political drama that seems, at times, only tangentially interested in politics.
If the mechanizations of digital espionage seem a dry concept to you, don’t worry because, evidently, so does Oliver Stone. The script by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald (The Homesman) never gets its hands dirty in the geopolitical implications of spycraft, choosing to focus instead the human element and in doing so he makes Snowden into something it doesn’t really have any business being – a love story between Snowden (Joseph Gordon Levitt, Looper) and Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley, The Fault in Our Stars). Lindsay, a photographer and self-proclaimed liberal, serves as an effective foil to Snowden’s increasing paranoia as he delves further down the intelligence rabbit hole. It’s an approach that certainly makes the emotional stakes more visible, but seen through this lens, the film because a standard work vs relationship drama with the stakes of nation security serving as window dressing to their interpersonal woes.
Far more compelling is the bildungsroman storyline of Snowden’s ascent through the intelligence community, which is rich with those who seek to exploit him for personal and national gain. The film does an adept, if someone reductive, job of establishing the gamut of personal interests inside the industry. Standing in for Snowden’s father figures are Corbin O’Brian, a fictional CIA recruiter (Rhys Ifans playing a role straight out of a Le Carre novel) who believes in safety over privacy at all costs and the also fictional Hank Forrester (Nicholas Cage), an idealist tucked away into a teaching position for questioning government bureaucracy, who becomes something of a mentor to Snowden. It’s an interesting philosophical debate between freedom and security that is quickly undermined by Timothy Olyphant (Justified), a CIA agent who uses intelligence to play with people’s lives and gain promotions. Intelligence isn’t just a game of nations, it’s a game of people, all clawing for power and using people’s lives as the playing field.
Performances are, on the whole, strong but the screenplay by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald (The Homesman) is too choppy for anyone other than Levitt or Woodley to shine much brighter than a glimmer. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a solid performance as Snowden, playing things appropriately tight to the chest. Much has been made of his accent, somewhat jarring in the trailer, but it becomes less distracting as the film goes on. The supporting cast is great, but the choppy editing by Alex Marquez (Savages) and Lee Percy (Boys Don’t Cry) often leaves scenes feeling disjointed and out of place. Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, and Tom Wilkson are particularly underserved as Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and Ewen MacAskill respectively. The film uses their time interviewing Snowden as a sort of wrap around narrative, with all but the most intense moments cut out, leaving their bursts of emotion feeling melodramatic.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
After my screening of Snowden there was a panel where Oliver Stone, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodly, and Edward Snowden (via videochat) discussed the film. Stone discussed how he wanted to tell a human story, one about people. This explains the film’s focus on Edward and Lindsay, but it doesn’t explain why the edge of this film has been sanded off. 2016 is an odd time for a film to be made about Edward Snowden, particularly because the story hasn’t totally resolved itself with him still living in Russia, but it’s stranger that the film would be so vanilla. Snowden is not a strictly factual account of Snowden’s time in the CIA, but rather a true crime morality tale. It tries desperately to be a film about people, when it is a story about ideals. Freedom, security, and privacy. These are salient issues that deserve to be discussed. Perhaps it’s best to see Snowden as an entryway into that discussion as opposed to a contributing voice. I’m not sure the film is constructed well enough to address the apathetic response that’s common to these issues: ‘I have nothing to hide, so I have nothing to worry about.’ For a worthy response we can look at Snowden – “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”