Movie Review: “Snowden”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Zachary Quinto, Melisssa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, Joely Richardson
Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone has been more hit than miss as a filmmaker over the past few years, but even his most successful work sometimes leaves a little more to be desired. Stone is a filmmaker that likes to take big swings with his movies – the ending of “Snowden” being a perfect example – and sometimes they don’t always payoff. In the case of “Snowden,” however, most of them do, making this biopic/thriller the director’s most consistent movie he’s made since 1999’s “Any Given Sunday.”

With this true story, Stone tackles one of recent history’s most divisive figures: Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the man who exposed the NSA’s illegal surveillance of American citizens. The film opens several years before those events, when he was a proud Republican and patriot who wanted to fight in the Iraq War, only to be discharged after breaking his legs in basic training. In 2006, Edward meets and falls in love with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), and shortly thereafter, begins working in the CIA’s global communications division, where he immediately questions his orders. For a while, he keeps his mouth shut and his concerns to himself, but after working on the NSA’s massive cyberforce project, Edward can no longer keep what he’s doing a secret while unsuspecting Americans are spied on by their own government. In 2013, Edward travels to Hong Kong with a hard drive containing classified documents exposing the NSA, which he shares with Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), as well as the documentary filmmaker behind “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo). Once the story breaks, Snowden becomes a fugitive without a home.

Oliver Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald’s script is dense. Even though the film wisely doesn’t cover Snowden’s life from birth to fugitive, there’s plenty of ground to cover in the years that Stone and Fitzgerald do focus on. For the most part, they present a streamlined dramatization of a few years in Snowden’s life. Like most biopics, some storylines aren’t fully developed (Woodley is saddled with the standard girlfriend role and given very little to do), but it’s mostly efficient and focused. There’s a tangible arc to Snowden’s journey – a beginning, middle and end that, unlike most biopics, doesn’t come off as a random series of CliffsNotes or a greatest hits of his life. The man we see at the beginning of “Snowden” couldn’t be more different from the one we see at the end, and how he became that man, the whistleblower, is the story that Stone is telling.

Alternatively, “Snowden” is a dialogue-heavy film filled with plenty of jargon and exposition that goes down smoothly thanks to the lead performance and Stone’s filmmaking. In the hands of a less visceral director, that might not have been the case. What could have been a fairly dry, redundant biopic is often a visually engrossing thriller. Snowden has an especially intense scene with a superior played by Rhys Ifans that is unnerving – an image of Ifans projected onto a large screen in a dark room, standing over Snowden’s ant-like figure. It’s a bold shot, and one that fills the screen with a sense of terror, almost as if Snowden is about to get squashed by this God.

The film stumbles at the end with a choice that won’t be spoiled here, but it breaks the reality of the movie, and more than that, it’s completely unnecessary. The ending aside, “Snowden” is another fine addition to Oliver Stone’s filmography, fitting in nicely with “JFK,” “Born on the Fourth of July” and other films about trying to be a good American. This story was right up his wheelhouse, so it’s no surprise that he turned it into a fairly suspenseful and empathetic portrait of Edward Snowden.