Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Nicolas Cage

Director: Oliver Stone

Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


The main question hovering over Oliver Stone's dramatization of the life, times, and whistle-blowing of Edward Snowden, is whether or not there's an actual movie here. Like Clint Eastwood's ripped-from-the-headlines landing a plane on the Hudson river drama Sully, which charts a story we all know the outcome to, Snowden is in a similar situation of creating a dramatic film out of something already covered ad nauseum in the news cycle, not to mention Laura Poitras's 2014 documentary Citizenfour. In other words, is there room for nuance and complexity regarding Snowden's ultimate decision to leak classified U.S. documents, or is Stone's intention to basically unleash a propaganda piece with the clear objective of exonerating him?

The answer to these questions is as simple as the filmmaker's obvious admiration for his subject. That Snowden never develops beyond hagiography into something more provocative stems from the fact that Stone never investigates the contradictory impulses inherent within the story. His Edward Snowden is a good old boy brought up as a conservative (much like Stone himself), dedicated to his country, and unable to wrap his mind around the idea that the government might be overstepping its constitutional powers. Structurally, the film dramatizes what led him to the historic data dump by focusing mostly on his tumultuous relationship with his amateur photographer girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley) and ideological disagreements with various NSA mentors, including a brooding boogeyman with a fedora played by Rhys Ifans. These flashbacks are bracketed by scenes of Snowden locked away inside his Hong Kong hotel room in 2013 with doc filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), and fellow journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). These moments are virtual reenactments from Citizenfour, and as such, play unconvincingly when compared to the real thing. Mostly, however, the hotel room scenes don't work because we never get a sense of Snowden's mental state during this pivotal time. Instead, they are chopped up and edited haphazardly as a framing device so that Stone can zigzag around the plot.

Ironically, Snowden himself professed many times that his intentions were to start a national conversation regarding the U.S. government's abuses of power and not be placed in the spotlight, which would distract the public from the real issues. Stone seems to miss this point completely and creates a film in which Snowden's goals are undermined by giving his story the fractured biopic treatment, sanding off any potentially controversial character traits that would give the narrative a sense of complication. Like JFK, Platoon, and Born on the Fourth of July, Stone is drawn to the everyman who gradually realizes their government is corrupt and are given the opportunity to make a difference. Unlike those pictures, however, Snowden is largely free of outrage and passion; ticking along like a safe TV Cable drama to it's inevitably sanctimonious climax.

To Stone's credit, he was shrewd to cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead here; who at once seems to be channeling Snowden's vocal intonations while also going beyond mimicry to create a fully dimensional human being. Unfortunately, the actor's carefully modulated performance is trapped inside an idealized narrative framework, and his scenes opposite Woodley lack both chemistry and conviction.  Still, through the sheer force of Levitt's empathetic portrayal, we get a glimpse of the movie Snowden could have been; something brash, provocative, and alive, rather than the streamlined treatment we get here. The issues raised by Snowden's controversial actions are important; a snapshot of government surveillance and privacy infringement run amok, which speaks to the very liberties the country was founded upon. It's a shame, then, that Stone simply casts his subject as martyr and saint, turning this story into the very thing Snowden himself warned us about.